Supporting indigenous capacity to conduct inshore dolphin research and monitoring

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Project overview

Through workshops and collaborative surveys, this project aims to provide training and experience in coastal dolphin surveys to four indigenous ranger groups in northern Australia. A ranger-specific dolphin survey manual will be developed, providing a resource to help guide ranger groups across northern Australia who are actively conducting surveys of coastal dolphins, or are interested in starting them. The project will: (1) further develop the capacity of indigenous ranger groups to survey marine wildlife on their Sea Country; (2) foster positive relationships between Traditional Owners, researchers and wildlife managers; and, (3) contribute valuable data to inform the conservation and management of tropical inshore dolphins in Australia.

This project was initiated by a grant from the Australian Government National Landcare Programme, and has received additional valuable support from WWF-Australia and the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI).


Video: Training and surveys with Dambimangari and Balanggarra Rangers in the Kimberley. Produced by WWF-Australia.

Research Team

Context

Three data deficient species of dolphin regularly occur in shallow, near-shore waters of this region: the Australian snubfin (Orcaella heinsohni), humpback (Sousa sahulensis) and Indo-Pacific bottlenose (Tursiops aduncus) dolphin. Snubfin and humpback dolphins only occur off northern Australia and southern New Guinea; their apparently small numbers and fragmented distribution have raised concerns over their vulnerability to human activities, yet insufficient information exists to assess their status as threatened species or not.

The expansive and remote nature of the northern coast of Australia presents many challenges to accessing these areas to collect data on inshore dolphins. With much of this coastline under traditional custodianship, forming positive collaborations between researchers and Traditional Owners is essential to appropriately accessing and surveying this remote region.

A number of Traditional Owners across northern Australia have a shared interest in inshore dolphins, including recognition of their value through healthy country plans, and many ranger groups have considerable capacity to access and work on their Sea Country.  However, relatively few groups have received structured training in dolphin survey techniques, and there are no such guidelines specifically designed for ranger groups. While acknowledging that priorities and resources will be somewhat group-specific, there is much value in developing a single reference document to guide the collection of data on inshore dolphins by indigenous ranger groups throughout Australia.

Australian snubfin (left) and humpback (centre) dolphins (both photos by Frank Martin, Dambimangari Rangers) and bottlenose dolphins (right) (photo by Kieran Bangmorra, Dambimangari Rangers).

Australian snubfin (left) and humpback (centre) dolphins (both photos by Frank Martin, Dambimangari Rangers) and bottlenose dolphins (right) (photo by Kieran Bangmorra, Dambimangari Rangers).

Aims and approach

This project aims to develop positive working relationships with Traditional Owner and enhance their ability to collect data to inform the conservation management of inshore dolphins. The two key objectives/activities are:

  1. Provide hands-on training in dolphin survey techniques by running classroom workshops and field surveys with four selected indigenous ranger groups in WA, NT and QLD.
  2. Based on the experiences of the workshops, develop a ranger-specific dolphin survey manual as a reference document to guide indigenous ranger groups that are interested to begin/continue research and monitoring of inshore dolphins in their Sea Country.

The participating ranger groups were engaged during the inception of the project, and included those which: (i) had communicated a desire to conduct marine mammal surveys; (ii) had the basic resources to do so independently (i.e. access to suitable vessel, time); and, (iii) had received limited prior training in dolphin survey techniques. Prior to undertaking training and field survey activities, research partnership agreements were established between the participating Traditional Owner groups and research institutions.

Training workshops and surveys

Building on previous workshops and training materials developed by the research team, one-day classroom-based workshops will cover the following:

  • Research need; project objectives, planned activities and schedule; species identification; survey design and procedures; assessing environmental conditions; photo-identification of dolphins; camera operation.
Learning the basics of camera operation with the Balanggarra Rangers. Photo: Quentin Gore, Balanggarra Rangers.

Learning the basics of camera operation with the Balanggarra Rangers. Photo: Quentin Gore, Balanggarra Rangers.

Following the workshops, a field survey will be conducted to put the training into practice and develop practical skills associated with surveying marine wildlife. Practical skills developed will include:

  • GPS operation; following a survey route; protocols for driving a boat around dolphins; species identification; assessing groups size, composition and behaviour; recording survey effort and dolphin sightings.
Balanggarra Rangers Wesley Alberts and Wayne Moore working alongside researchers to capture photo-identification images of dolphins in the Cambridge Gulf. Photo: Alex Brown.

Balanggarra Rangers Wesley Alberts and Wayne Moore working alongside researchers to capture photo-identification images of dolphins in the Cambridge Gulf. Photo: Alex Brown.

Surveys will be conducted on the Sea Country of the participating groups and include as many rangers as possible. The duration of field surveys will be dependent upon the resources available, with longer, multi-day surveys presenting the opportunity to collect valuable data on the occurrence of dolphins in an area.

Following the field surveys, demonstrations will be provided of data management, storage and basic analysis.

A post-survey presentation with the Dambimangari Rangers to recap on learning outcomes. Photo: Jessica Chapman.

A post-survey presentation with the Dambimangari Rangers to recap on learning outcomes. Photo: Jessica Chapman.

Dolphin survey manual

The survey manual will capture the training materials presented in the workshops and applied during the field surveys. Example datasheets and species-ID guides will be included, in addition to online resources such as powerpoint presentations and electronic data recording templates. Rather than being overly prescriptive, the manual will aim to present rangers with a variety of options for conducting dolphin surveys which can be matched to their respective objectives and resources. We will seek input from participating ranger groups and colleagues during the drafting of the survey manual. Once finalised and approved, the manual and supporting materials will be made publicly available online.

Project schedule

Aug 2016: Alex Brown held a training workshop with the Balanggarra Rangers in Wyndham, WA. This was followed by a two-week survey in the Cambridge Gulf and adjacent coastal waters (northern Kimberley), in collaboration with UWA’s Dr. Simon Allen and WAMSI. A total of six rangers participated in the training workshop, and four rangers participated in the field survey.

High spirits at the end of a successful two week survey in the Cambridge Gulf. L-R: Wayne Moore, Tom Nagle and Thomas Birch (Balanggarra), Alex Brown (MUCRU) and Simon Allen (UWA). Photo: Andy Yardley.

High spirits at the end of a successful two week survey in the Cambridge Gulf. L-R: Wayne Moore, Tom Nagle and Thomas Birch (Balanggarra), Alex Brown (MUCRU) and Simon Allen (UWA). Photo: Andy Yardley.

Sep 2016: Alex Brown participated in an eight-day survey of the Prince Regent River area (central Kimberley, WA) in collaboration with West Kimberley Region DPaW staff and Dambimangari Rangers, who form the joint management team of Lalang-garram Marine Park. The survey, aboard the patrol vessel Worndoom, provided the opportunity for practical training of Dambimangari and Marine Park Rangers.

Ready for a productive day of dolphin surveys on the Prince Regent River, WA. L-R: Adrian Lane (Dambimangari and DPaW Ranger) Pete O’Connor (Dambimangari Ranger), Danny Barrow (DPaW Senior Ranger), Alex Brown (MUCRU researcher). Photo: Michael Hourn.

Ready for a productive day of dolphin surveys on the Prince Regent River, WA. L-R: Adrian Lane (Dambimangari and DPaW Ranger) Pete O’Connor (Dambimangari Ranger), Danny Barrow (DPaW Senior Ranger), Alex Brown (MUCRU researcher). Photo: Michael Hourn.

Oct 2016: Alex Brown held a training workshop with the Dambimangari Rangers in Derby, WA. This was followed by an eight-day survey of the Yampi Sound area (western Kimberley). Considerable in-kind support from Dambimangari facilitated the use of three vessels and participation of six rangers.

Big mob! Happy but tired crew after a successful week at Yampi Sound. L-R: James Mansfield and Kieran Bangmorra (Dambimangari), Jess Chapman (WWF-Australia), Warren Barunga (Dambimangari), Ezrah Rastus, Gary Umbagai and Frank Martin (Dambimangari), Alex Brown (MUCRU) and Pete O’Connor (Dambimangari).

Big mob! Happy but tired crew after a successful week at Yampi Sound. L-R: James Mansfield and Kieran Bangmorra (Dambimangari), Jess Chapman (WWF-Australia), Warren Barunga (Dambimangari), Ezrah Rastus, Gary Umbagai and Frank Martin (Dambimangari), Alex Brown (MUCRU) and Pete O’Connor (Dambimangari).

Oct 2016: Isabel Beasley held a training workshop with the Jabalbina Rangers in Mossman, north QLD. This was followed by four days of surveys around the Port Douglas area. Future surveys are planned for 2017. A total of four rangers participated in the training and boat-based surveys.

Feb 2017: Isabel Beasley held three days of training workshops with the Kenbi Rangers in Belyuen, NT, followed by surveys in Fog Bay and around the Cox Peninsula.

Nov 2016 – Mar 2017: Survey results will be reported back to participating ranger groups, and the research team will develop the dolphin survey manual.

Media

Relevant publications

  • Brown , A.M., Bejder, L., Pollock, K.H. and Allen, S.J. 2016. Site-specific assessments of the abundance of three inshore dolphin species to inform conservation and management. Frontiers in Marine Science 3: 4. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00004
  • Brown, A.M., Bejder, L., Parra, G.J., Cagnazzi, D., Hunt, T., Smith, J.L. and Allen, S.J. 2016. Sexual dimorphism and geographic variation in dorsal fin features of Australian humpback dolphins, Sousa sahulensis. Advances in Marine Biology 73: 273-314. doi: 10.1016/bs.amb.2015.08.002
  • Hanf, D. M., Hunt, T. and Parra, G. J. 2016. Humpback dolphins of Western Australia: a review of current knowledge and recommendations for future management. Advances in Marine Biology 73: 193-218. doi: 10.1016/bs.amb.2015.07.004
  • Brown, A.M., Kopps, A.M., Allen, S.J.Bejder, L., Littleford-Colquhoun, B., Parra, G.J., Cagnazzi, D., Thiele, D., Palmer, C. and Frère, C.H. 2014. Population differentiation and hybridisation of Australian snubfin (Orcaella heinsohni) and Indo-Pacific humpback (Sousa chinensis) dolphins in north-western Australia. PLoS One 9: e101427. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101427
  • Grech A, Parra GJ, Beasley I, Bradley J, Johnson S, Whiting S, li-Anthawirriyarra Sea Rangers, Yanyuwa Families, Marsh H (2014) Local assessments of marine mammals in cross-cultural environments. Biodiversity Conservation 23: 3319–3338. doi: 10.1007/s10531-014-0783-6

Research ethics: This research project is being conducted under a research permit from the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife, and with approval from Murdoch University Animal Ethics Committee. In QLD this project is being undertaken under a research permit from the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. In NT this project is being undertaken under a research permit from the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission.

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