The Great Barrier Reef is like no other place on Earth and a refuge for some of our most magical creatures. With the support of the Banrock Station Environmental Trust, WWF-Australia and its partners are conducting pioneering research to protect the Reef's precious residents, like marine turtles. Living as they do in coastal bays, green turtles are directly impacted by human activity. What we put down our sinks, the chemicals we use on land and what’s washed off our roads ends up in the ocean, threatening the clean water that turtles need to survive. During flooding, massive amounts of soil and chemicals are washed from farms, industrial and urban areas onto the Reef. This pollutes and destroys areas of seagrass and coral, where turtles live and feed, and has been implicated in unexplained mass turtle deaths and higher rates of disease. Our Rivers to Reef to Turtles project aims to identify and measure the key pollutants in rivers, the Great Barrier Reef and in green turtles themselves. Then we can work to improve water quality, boosting the resilience of the Reef and turtle health. WWF’s project partners include the University of Queensland’s National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology and School of Veterinary Science, James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Research, Griffith University, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Queensland Government agencies, local Traditional Owners and natural resource management groups, and community members.

The Rivers to Reef to Turtles team processing turtles
The Rivers to Reef to Turtles team processing turtles © Cameron Laird / Accolade Wines Australia Limited / WWF-Aus

What our partners say...

“This new partnership is an incredibly rewarding opportunity to support WWF-Australia in an effort to understand the threats to one of the most iconic Australian ecosystems and its native marine wildlife, and help to find solutions to protect it,” said Dr Christophe Tourenq, Banrock Station Wetland Manager and Banrock Station Environmental Trust panel member. “We’re investigating which contaminants are in Reef waters, to what degree green turtles are absorbing these contaminants, and how that might be impacting turtle health,” said WWF-Australia’s National Manager for Species, Darren Grover. “Turtles are a good barometer of Reef health and the contaminants affecting them are also likely to be impacting other marine creatures." “There used to be a theory that the ocean was so huge it would dilute contaminants to such an extent that it remained a relatively healthy environment for marine creatures,” said Associate Professor Caroline Gaus, from the University of Queensland. “But people should be aware that many of the chemicals we flush down the toilet, apply to our gardens, spray on crops, or use in factories can end up in turtles and we don’t yet know how it is affecting them." “We found chemicals associated with industry and agriculture in the blood of turtles from both Upstart Bay and Cleveland Bay,” said Associate Professor Gaus. “But the preliminary data highlights that Upstart Bay turtles have particularly higher levels of the metals cobalt, molybdenum and antimony, and higher levels of stress-related compounds than turtles at the other locations. These stress-related compounds are often a sign of chemical exposure."

Timeline of action

  • Project commenced in mid-2014
  • Fieldwork commenced at the control site in the Howick Group of Islands in August-September 2014
  • Fieldwork in Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay commenced in October 2014
  • Next round of fieldwork in Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay was in June 2015
  • Next round of fieldwork at the Howick Group of Islands was in July-August 2015
  • First round of results shows clear differentiation in the water quality between ‘control’ and ‘impacted’ sites, while turtles from the Howick Group appeared to be the healthiest
  • Further fieldwork in Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay was in September-October 2015
  • Another round of fieldwork in Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay was in May 2016
  • Last round of fieldwork at the Howick Group of Islands in July-August 2016

Latest updates from the project