Bellingen Riverwatch grew from a turtle mortality event
In February 2015, the Bellingen River Snapping Turtle (BRST) suffered a significant mortality event with ~430 turtle deaths recorded.
A total of ~430 turtle deaths were recorded in the mortality event of 2015, 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.
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. The infected turtles suffered blindness, internal organ necrosis and developed sudden inflammatory lesions. Affected turtles displayed symptoms of malnourishment and lethargy.
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 turtle is now Critically Endangered
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.
Conservation Activities for the turtle
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.
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
Why Bellingen Riverwatch?
Bellingen Riverwatch was born from the need to collect continuous water quality data to assist scientists involved in the recovery of the BRST and inform management decisions.
Bellingen Riverwatch enables access to the data for scientists and the community to aid decision making, guide research, inform policy, raise awareness and improve community understanding about the environment and threatened species.
How it all Began
In late 2016, following a request from OzGREEN, the Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH) in association with the 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 Bellingen Riverwatch 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, scientifically rigorous water quality data. Scientists from OEH carry out a comprehensive bi-annual water quality and macroinvertebrate survey, and assist with data analysis and interpretation.
The Future of Bellingen Riverwatch
Since its inception, Bellingen Riverwatch has shifted focus from one species to a whole ecosystem approach monitoring the health of the waterways.
In addition to water quality testing, 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).
Bellingen Riverwatch is an initiative of OzGREEN and The Office of Environment & Heritage in partnership with Bellingen Shire Council, NSW Waterwatch, Western Sydney University, Taronga Zoo Sydney, Bellinger Landcare, Earthwatch Institute, Eco Logical Australia, North Coast Local Land Services and Jaliigirr Biodiversity Alliance. Learn more
We are currently seeking sponsors to support this incredible project. There are a range of sponsorships to suit everyone and we are urgently seeking Water Testing Kit Sponsors. Download our 2019 Sponsorship Proposal