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Where do the nesting Hawksbill turtles from the Conflict Islands go...?

Fin Print

Bruv studies of the shark and ray species of the conflict islands

University of Queensland

Melissa Staines  keeping cool

New Collaboration 


— Melissa Staines PHD Candidate

I’ve been passionate about marine life ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the ocean and for the first 10 years of my life I was always out in the boat fishing with my Mum and Dad. I went to university at The University of Queensland, Australia to do a Bachelor of Science with an extended major in Marine Biology. 

During my undergrad, I did a summer research project at Mon Repos Turtle Rookery in central Queensland (QLD). Over those 3 months I developed my skills in research and experimental design and had the opportunity to work with Loggerheads (Caretta caretta), Greens (Chelonia mydas) and Flatbacks (Natator depressus) which are endemic to Australia but have been seen feeding in the shallow water between PNG and Torres Strait.

My project at Mon Repos developed our understanding about egg mortality associated with root invasion of the nest. We found that the clutches of eggs relocated into full-sun areas with no surrounding vegetation had greater hatching success than clutches that were relocated in tree-shaded areas with grasses surrounding the nest. You can find the article published in the peer-reviewed journal, Acta Oecologica.

In 2019, I started an honours post-grad research project on Milman Island, located 20km east of the Cape York Peninsula, Australia in the northern Great Barrier Reef (nGBR). My project was in collaboration with WWF Australia, Koala Mattresses (sponsor) and the QLD Government. This island is a nesting site for a couple hundred Hawksbill turtles (Erectmochelys imbricata) and fewer than 50 Green turtles. The purpose of the study was to identify the best way to cool down sea turtle nests, this is because we know that sea turtles have their sex determined by the temperature of the sand. Warmer sand (generally above 29˚C) produces more females, which is what researchers have predicted with the onset of climate change. We conducted a sand cooling project using a variety of different cooling methods in order to produce male-biased clutches, however no substantial results could be obtained due to it being the wettest summer in 10 years. You can imagine my disappointment. However, we were able to get some important information about the effect of rainfall on sand temperatures, which developed further into theories about how sea turtles coped with climate change in the past. You can read more about the Turtle Cooling Project on the WWF Australia website.

My work in Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the Conflict Islands has been extremely important in developing these theories. In the 2018/19 season, the Conflict Island Initiative conducted a small scale version of the Milman Island study. This season (2019/20), I have been placing data loggers on Panasesa and Irai Island to establish base line sand temperatures to be used in my PhD project. During my time in the Conflicts, I was involved in training staff on turtle biology and techniques on monitoring. Although I was the teacher, I learned so much from my PNG brothers and sisters about their culture, island life, turtle husbandry and their own techniques. I’m excited to do more work in PNG in the near future, as these populations of Hawksbills and Green turtles are at threat to poaching, egg harvest and climate change.



New satellite tracking has confirmed that critically endangered hawksbill turtles use the Coral Sea as their highway to travel from Papua New Guinea to the Great Barrier Reef.

It adds to mounting concern over the federal government’s draft plans to reduce the Coral Sea’s protected areas by 50%.

The satellite tracking information is part of the “Bring Back the Bills (PDF 1.8MB)” project* to arrest the alarming decline of hawksbills across the Indo-Pacific region.

Millions of hawksbills were killed for their shells, prior to a worldwide ban on the tortoiseshell trade, and the species has never properly recovered. 

The northern Great Barrier Reef lagoon was thought to have one of the few remaining large populations but it is endangered and slowly declining.

Anecdotal evidence suggests PNG’s hawksbill numbers are also in decline.

A research trip to the Conflict Group of Islands (29/12/2017 – 12/1/2018) aimed to learn more about PNG’s hawksbills and their relationship to the north-east Australian stock.

The expedition was a partnership between WWF-Australia, the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), local Milne Bay Province community turtle monitors and the newly established Conflict Island Conservation Initiative (CICI).

Satellite trackers were attached to 10 hawksbills nesting in the Conflict Group of Islands, to discover their migration paths and location of their foraging grounds.


Genetic samples were taken and these will be analysed in coming months to learn if the PNG and NE Australian stocks are related.

Christine Hof, WWF-Australia’s marine scientist and USC’s PhD researcher, said hawksbills are a protected species in Australia but not PNG.

“Hawksbills must be afforded protection across borders at their nesting beaches and feeding grounds, and along their entire migratory path if they are to recover,” Ms Hof said.

It was hoped that because of its remoteness, the Conflict Group of Islands could be a stronghold for hawksbills.

But monitoring by CICI showed that from 2 November to 10 January, of the 352 turtles that attempted to nest in the Conflict Group of Islands, only 33 (fewer than 10%) were hawksbills.

In this isolated region, turtles and their eggs have long been harvested for food and to trade for other items. It’s also feared the shell ends up in the black-market tortoiseshell trade.

CICI turtle monitors rescued four hawksbills from poachers in December.

The Conflict Group of Islands are owned by Australian millionaire Ian Gowrie-Smith.

“My aim is to garner the cooperation of the local communities by way of education, illustration and financial income alternatives to become an iconic illustration of what community-based conservation can achieve,” Mr Gowrie-Smith said.

“I recognise the enormous ecological importance of the islands and wish to preserve it for all our future generations,” he said.

Apart from poaching of turtles and their eggs, threats include capture in fishing gear, marine debris, and climate change impacts.

Sea level rise, caused by climate change, can make nesting beaches inaccessible or can drown eggs.

Climate change can also harm foraging habitat and make sand so hot that nests fatally overheat.

Tree trunks – thought to drift around PNG waters from local harvesting or logging activity – also wash ashore and block turtles attempting to nest.

This season, CICI said turtles struggled with some beaches badly eroded by strong trade winds. Then a nearby cyclone whipped up large waves which destroyed many nests on Panasesa and Irai Islands.

*Collaborative project partners of the Bring Back the Bills project include WWF-Australia, USC, local Milne Bay community turtle monitors, CICI, and its volunteers.

The field trip and satellite trackers were supported by WWF-Australia, Isaacson Davis Foundation, USC and Reef HQ Aquarium Turtle Hospital.

See our results from our 2016 collaboration with Global Fin Print below

We are very excited to announce our collaboration with Global FinPrint (www.globalfinprint.org )

They will be spending some time with us during the month of October, conducting both shark and ray surveys in and around the Conflict Island Atoll. The initiative uses baited remote underwater video BRUV, to view undisturbed reef environments and the reef inhabitants, while the bait helps to attract predators of all kinds. This will be the first time this technique will be used in this area of Papua New Guinea and certainly the first time it has been used at the Conflict Islands.

Global FinPrint that brings as its name suggests a global team of international collaborators which Team CICI is very proud to be a part of. This will help to fill critical gap in knowledge about the numbers and species diversity in our area, and globally. Because of a lack of consistent surveys, it is difficult to determine what pre-exploitation densities and diversities “should” be to set restoration targets.” – Global Fin Print
Recent estimates suggest that around 100 million sharks are taken from the oceans every year for their fins and/or meat (Worm et al. 2013). Top predators are critically important in ecological processes to keep our oceans healthy, and with their removal comes a collapse from the top down through these food webs and delicately balanced ecological processes.

Baited remote underwater videos (BRUVs) are a reliable, time and cost effective method for studying aquatic species. This project will allow the team to compare reefs with different characteristics to see what factors (such as coral cover, fish population density, fishing pressure, or water temperature) determine the number, types, and sizes of sharks seen on a reef. With this information, our team can determine the role of sharks and rays in various locations, highlighting research needs and prioritizing conservation actions to protect what is left or rebuild populations that are in trouble. The data – and the scientific adventure – will be made accessible to students, the general public, governments and other scientists through an open-access database to be created by Vulcan, Inc., maximizing Global FinPrint’s impact on marine education and conservation.” – Global FinPrint


Effective marine conservation for threatened species like the green sea turtles (Chelona mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochely simbricata) relies heavily on information about that species and its population.

In the past, this information has been collected using a ‘capture-mark/tag-recapture technique’. However, the advancement in digital photography have facilitated the use of photo-ID to track individual animals, making this technique of great value for wildlife analysis and conservation.

With this, Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative or CICI is very excited to announce our collaboration with WILD ME (www.wildme.org) and their open source platform, Wildbook.

WILD ME is online database combating extinction with citizen science and artificial intelligence.

“WILD ME uses algorithm to digitally tag individual animals much like a human fingerprint”.

Jason Homberg, Al for Earth Grantee -Executive Director, Wild Me

CICI takes facial ID’s which can be used to track our turtle populations in a non-invasive way. Did you know that each sided profile of the face of a turtle is unique and can be used like fingerprints to ID them?

Therefore, with our collaboration with WILD ME, we can now upload our turtle’s facial ID’s to WILDBOOK.

Wildbook is the open source platform which brings a wealth of new technology to combat extinction. As the foundation of all Wild Me’s projects, this open source platform combines the power of wildlife research, citizen science, computer vision of the latest technology and artificial intelligence to assess wildlife health and habitat, speeding population analysis and conservation action.

Wildbook combines the research and talents of Wild Me, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Illinois-Chicago, Princeton University and Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative.


Conflict Islands, Milne Bay

Papua New Guinea



Tel: +675 7165 4596

Skype: hayleyversace

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©CICI 2017