Bellingen Riverwatch grew as a response to a severe mortality event, suffered by the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle in February 2015.
In February 2015, the BRST suffered a significant mortality event due to a disease outbreak in the Bellinger River in northern NSW. Since the mortality event a disease investigation has identified a virus (Bellinger River Virus or BRV), previously not known to science, as the agent most likely to be responsible for the mortality event.
A total of ~430 turtle deaths were recorded; however the numbers are suggested to be much higher. It is believed that many of the dead turtles may have been washed away in a major flood event which occurred around the time of the mortality event. The infected turtles suffered blindness, internal organ necrosis and developed sudden inflammatory lesions.
Prior to this event, the population size for the species was estimated at 1600 – 4500 individuals. The current Bellinger River Turtle population is estimated to be between 200 and 300 individuals and predominantly juveniles.
The BRST is currently listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The BRST is endemic to this area and occupies about 55 km stretch of the Bellinger River. Main threats to this species include poor water quality, predation by foxes, and the past disease outbreak.
During the mortality event, healthy BRST from an area yet to be impacted by the virus were removed from the river by the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH). 16 animals were placed in temporary quarantine at Western Sydney University (WSU) and now are now part of a captive breeding program at Taronga Zoo. A second population of 19 juveniles was secured from the wild after the mortality event and will join the captive breeding program housed at Symbio Wildlife Park. The offspring from this program will be released back into the Bellinger River in future years.
To maximise the BRST’s persistence in the wild, it is important that the river’s water quality is monitored consistently.Preliminary testing by EPA did not detect any water pollution issues. However, a need to collect continuous water quality data has been identified by the scientists involved in the recovery of the BRST to inform management decisions.
In late 2016, following a request from OzGREEN, the Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH) in association with Saving our Species program, started the motion to design a community driven citizen science project. It was quickly apparent that the project will be long-term and needed a model which can sustain itself past any funding periods. To achieve this, it was important to work together collaboratively with the groups and agencies in the area and, leverage expertise and available resources.
In May 2017, OEH, in partnership with OzGREEN and assistance from NSW Waterwatch, set-up a citizen science project to facilitate the water quality testing process with the intention to maintain and/or improve the river’s health. Eleven project partner organisations have come together to design and develop the program. All project partners contribute significantly to the success of Bellingen Riverwatch.
Bellingen Riverwatch engages 25 local community volunteers and 5 schools to collect monthly water quality data. In addition to water quality testing, other long-term citizen science activities may include monitoring riparian vegetation, reporting turtle sightings and evidence of turtle nests as well as water bug surveys (turtles rely on macroinvertebrates as their primary food source). Scientists from OEH carry out a comprehensive bi-annual water quality and macroinvertebrate survey, and assist with data analysis and interpretation.
Bellingen Riverwatch enables access to the data to aid decision making, guide research, inform policy, raise awareness and improve community understanding about the environment and threatened species.
Examples of conservation activities currently underway to aid the recovery of the BRST include:
- Captive breeding program in Taronga Zoo Sydney and addition of a second juvenile population at Symbio Wildlife Park (Sept 2017)
- Ongoing surveys at the river to determine population size and distribution, monitoring of extant population by OEH
- Local BRST Stakeholder’s group and involvement in Bellingen Landcare Bellinger River program
- Development of an expert reference group for the BRST
- Status Review, Disease Risk Analysis and Conservation Action Plan for the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (Myuchelys georgesi) developed December 2016
- PhD student from Western Sydney University undertaking studies on BRST
Since its inception, Bellingen Riverwatch has shifted focus from one species to a whole ecosystem approach monitoring the health of the waterways.