Fitzroy River port development poses potential threat to dolphin population

Published 21 February 2013

A long-term study of an isolated population of Australian snubfin dolphins living in Queensland’s Fitzroy River has demonstrated the need for urgent conservation action ahead of potential future port developments in the Port Alma region in central Queensland.

Dr Daniele Cagnazzi, a postdoctoral research fellow with Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, has been studying inshore dolphins in Tin Can Bay, Hervey Bay, Gladstone and the Fitzroy River Catchment for nine years.

The results of the study have been published in PLOS ONE, an open access peer reviewed scientific journal, in a paper titled ‘At the heart of the industrial boom: Australian snubfin dolphins in the Capricorn coast, Queensland, need urgent conservation action’.

Dr Cagnazzi said the recent industrial boom along the Australian coastline had increased concerns about the long-term conservation of snubfin dolphins along the Queensland coast.

“The dolphins, because of their close proximity to the coast, are subject to a range of threats including poor water quality, habit degradation, coastal development and increased flood frequencies,” Dr Cagnazzi said.

“In this study we assessed the conservation status of this small geographically isolated population of snubfin dolphins living in the Fitzroy River region, against the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) criteria for regional populations.

“A review of all available sightings data and stranding information indicates that this is the southernmost resident population of snubfin dolphins in Australian waters. The Fitzroy River snubfin dolphin population is composed of less than 100 individuals, with a core habitat area of about 300km2 respectively.”

Dr Cagnazzi said it was anticipated that the planned industrial port development, if it were approved to go ahead, could affect up to 25 per cent of the core area for these dolphins.

“If this habitat is lost, there is no other close habitat with similar characteristics for this population. Some of the dolphins may be able to migrate to more suitable locations while others may not,” he said.

“What we need is to ensure that there are proper management practices in place.”

Dr Cagnazzi said his study showed that given the small population size, geographic isolation and limited distribution together with the low level of formal protection and future threats, a classification of ‘endangered’, using the IUCN criteria, was appropriate.

Dr Cagnazzi has also been studying another inshore dolphin species, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, in the Gladstone port area and further south in Hervey Bay.

Professor Peter Harrison, director of the SCU Marine Ecology Research Centre, said Dr Cagnazzi’s work was critical for the survival of these species.

"There has been relatively little known about inshore dolphins, particularly in northern Australia,” Professor Harrison said.

“His research provides some of the best long-term information we have on those species in Australian waters and forms a really important baseline about the abundance of these dolphins and their habitat use in the inner part of the Great Barrier Reef.

“This research provides a really important foundation at a very critical time,” he said.

Dr Cagnazzi’s research has been funded through the Australian Government's Caring for our Country program and is managed by the Fitzroy Basin Association Inc in partnership with SCU Marine Ecology Research Centre including research projects since 2006.

The paper, ‘At the heart of the industrial boom: Australian snubfin dolphins in the Capricorn coast, Queensland, need urgent conservation action.’ Daniele Cagnazzi(a), Guido J. Parra (b,c), Shane Westley(d) and Peter L. Harrison(a), is available at PLOS ONE

Media contact: Brigid Veale head of Communications and Publications Southern Cross University, 66593006 or 0439 680 748.