Transcript - Doorstop, Hervey Bay

ANTHONY CHISHOLM [ASSISTANT MINISTER]: It’s great to be here in Hervey Bay with Mayor George Seymour, State MP Adrian Tantari and Professor Bartlett as well from the Sunshine Coast University. It’s a really exciting announcement that the Federal Government are going to contribute to the Turtle Research and Rehabilitation Centre. This is something that’s been really driven by Sunshine Coast University, and I congratulate them for that, by the Mayor as well, who’s been consistent in his advocacy, but also the support of Adrian as the State MP and the State Government as well. But I’m really pleased to say that the Federal Government will be making a $250,000 contribution to ensure that this project can happen. We know that the turtle is a really identifiable animal in this part of the world and obviously it drives a lot of tourism. But there’s also important research opportunities that go with that. But also, we want to see the health of the turtles continue to thrive and improve, and it’s particularly pleasing that the Butchulla people – and Veronica is here representing them – are part of this process as well. We know that turtles currently have to travel down to the Sunshine Coast for treatment. So what this facility will ensure is that those turtles can be treated locally, but it will also contribute to the science and the research and the understanding, so that these species can continue to thrive in this environment as well. So it’s great for this region when you consider the turtle popularity and tourism opportunities through Bundaberg and this part of the world, but also it’s great for Sunshine Coast University as well so that they can continue their ground-breaking research. So, I’m really pleased that the Federal Government can contribute, and it’s great to have Professor Bartlett here to say a few words and also thank her for driving this project forward as well.

HELEN BARTLETT [USC VICE CHANCELLOR]: Well, this project is a fantastic example of what can happen when all levels of government come together to make something so important for this local community come to fruition. In partnership with the Butchulla Native Land Title Corporation, with turtles in trouble, with the University of the Sunshine Coast, the support of the Fraser Coast Regional Council and many others, this has taken quite some time to pull together, but now we’re expecting to be able to launch the turtle rehabilitation research centre at the beginning of next year. And it will be a great opportunity not just for rehabilitation of animals who are in trouble and exhibiting disease that hasn’t been witnessed before, but to also undertake research to try and identify causes of the disease and problems in the marine habitat and also to look at strategies to protect such important marine life in the region. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of the local Mayor, George Seymour. And of course, the key researcher, Associate Professor Kathy Townsend, who will say something more about the science. But I’d like to turn to George Seymour now to talk about his great part in all this.

GEORGE SEYMOUR [FRASER COAST REGIONAL COUNCIL MAYOR]: I want to thank Senator Chisholm. Senator Chisholm has been a great advocate for our region. I’ve met with him and Minister Kristy McBain about this project. This will be great for our local community. The State Government has put in more than a million dollars. Now the Federal Government is contributing significant funds. This is about protecting our wilderness and the wildlife habitat we have here. Looking after the environment is about thinking globally and acting locally. These are endangered species, the Green Sea Turtle and the Loggerhead, and they’re washing up here in record numbers. They’re floating and they’re sinking. Right now today there are people driving back from the Sunshine Coast with a turtle to be released that’s been in care for a number of weeks, and yesterday a turtle was rescued from K’gari and sent down to the Sunshine Coast. So these turtles are going back and forth between the Fraser Coast, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast to get this care, and that’s what this project is about. It’s about making sure our local teams here – the Butchulla people, the Butchulla rangers, the amazing volunteers from Turtles in Trouble Rescue, the students at the University of Sunshine Coast, working together can help save these endangered species. Since the floods in 2022 we have seen a dramatic drop off – a 99 per cent drop off – of the seagrass here in the Great Sandy Straits and we believe that’s led, at least in part or almost – at least in part to the soft shell syndrome which is seeing this catastrophic effect on these amazing endangered sea turtles. Together we are working together with the Butchulla native title group, the University of the Sunshine Coast, the Federal Government, the State Government and, of course, the  Fraser Coast Council and, of course, the volunteers of Turtles in Trouble Rescue to rescue them. So I really want to thank everyone involved. This is a massive effort across our community to recognise and save these animals.

ADRIAN TANTARI [QLD STATE MP]: Can I just say that this is a great moment for Hervey Bay – further additional funding from the Federal Government. This shows how collaboration works when all governments and community come together. As mentioned earlier, having the Butchulla people, having Turtles in Trouble, the University of the Sunshine Coast, the Federal Government, Fraser Coast Council and State Government working together to make sure that turtles in our area are looked after and cared for. Now that’s the important part. It allows our community a greater appreciation of what it is to care for these really rare and precious marine mammals. It vitally important that we work together to ensure that we continue to have the marine and aquatic life in the Great Sandy Marine Park looked after. And it is again just another great example of the community working together in partnership with government.

KATHY TOWNSEND [USC ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR]: I just want to thank everyone for coming today. It’s been an absolute pleasure to be part of this project, which is bringing all members of the community, government from all levels working together to save an iconic species that we find in the waters here in the Hervey Bay region. But as George said, what we’re doing here is we’re actually acting locally but thinking globally, because the lessons that we learn here will be able to be transported to other places in the world. These species are found globally in the tropics around the world, and the stuff that’s happening here is also happening in other places in the world. And what this means is we’re going to be seeing people from other regions of the world – experts both within Australia and internationally – coming to this regional location to build on this knowledge about how to protect these endangered species. So it’s really exciting, and not only will we be attracting researchers from other parts of the world and other parts of Australia, but we’re already starting to see post graduate students, some PhD students, coming to these regional campus areas to work in this very exciting area of sea turtle rehabilitation and research.

JOURNALIST: Is there a hope that with this centre we can see more turtles successfully released back into the wild?

TOWNSEND: Yes. That’s one of the really big goals of this centre, is to actually have the turtles be able to be cared for on country by local people, allowing them to also be returned back to country and reducing that very large travel time that we have at the moment. These animals are having to go three and a half hour each way to get care in the Sunshine Coast region.

JOURNALIST: What are some of the risks associated with a turtle travelling for three and a half hours in the back of a truck?

TOWNSEND: So when a turtle washes up it’s already very unwell. And by placing it in a truck, in a foreign environment and driving it for that length of time really does increase the risk of that animal passing away. It increases the shock. So having a location here where we can actually absolute least to be able to triage them but potentially be able to care for them the whole time, it reduces that risk factor.

JOURNALIST: Like George was saying, we’ve seen record numbers of turtles washing up on our beaches. It’s a terrible sight. With a centre like this, is it hoped that maybe that number will slowly drop as we’ve got enough research out there to maybe help them protect their habitat a bit more?

TOWNSEND: That is a definitely – I mean, in a perfect world this centre would be redundant, really. In a perfect world all the sea turtles would be healthy and there’d be no need for us to be able to do this. Unfortunately that’s not the case that we have at the moment. And the sea turtles are under a huge number of pressures – everything from boat strikes to habitat loss to, you know, pollutants, all sorts of different things. But a centre such as this can really help us hone in on what are those factors that are really impacting the turtles so that in the long term we can have the best potential outcome for the health of the animals in this region.

JOURNALIST: Yeah, I just wanted to touch on I think George mentioned the loss of seagrass. Can you expand on that a bit and how that’s contributed to the failing of their habitats and environments?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, so after the massive floods that we had in the – in 2020 and onwards, there was – the water quality in Hervey Bay was reduced. And what that meant was is that the seagrass itself could no longer photosynthesise, and we’ve lost about 99 per cent of our seagrass. Now, that might not seem like a big deal except for the fact that seagrasses, sea turtles and dugongs in particular are really dependent upon. And if they don’t have that food resource then they are basically living off what’s left of their fat stores. I think the other thing to also remember is that seagrass is, of course – it’s extremely important for dugongs and sea turtles, but it is really the basis of the food web. And there’s so many other organisms within the bay that are dependent on that seagrass. And, really, our sea turtles are like our canary in the coalmine – if our sea turtles are unwell, it’s giving us a very good understanding that the system itself is unwell. And so, again, by creating this centre, it gives us that ability to react to these kinds of things that are happening and try to come up with solutions in the long term.