There are many things community members can do to maintain river health and support the recovery of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle.
1. Donate to our Water Testing Kit Crowdfunding Campaign - URGENT
Bellingen Riverwatch runs on extremely limited funding. Our most urgent need at present is funding for five more water testing kits to support the work of our volunteers. We are crowdfunding for one kit and seeking businesses sponsorship for four kits.
Donate to our Crowdfunding Campaign (link coming soon)
2. Keep a Clean Routine
Thorough cleaning of boats and equipment when moving from the Bellinger to other waterways may significantly reduce the risk of transporting the BRV virus. Community members can help minimise the risk of spreading the virus by swimming in only one location, or cleaning and drying swimming gear between visits, and washing down canoes with soapy water and drying thoroughly before re-use.
Download Keep a ‘clean’ routine: Bellinger River Snapping Turtle mortality (link coming soon)
Download Code of Conduct for recreational use: Bellinger & Kalang Estuary (link coming soon)
3. Report Turtle Sightings
Report turtle sightings using Turtle SAT, and report nesting sights, and sick or dead turtles on (02) 6659 8200 or Bellinger.firstname.lastname@example.org. To report sick or dead turtles, phone 131 555.
4. Make a Regular or One-Off Gift
Sustaining a highly functioning community project such as this requires adequate on-ground and administrative support to ensure that the volunteers are well supported and the partnerships are nurtured. Make a regular or one-off gift to support this program into the future.
5. Like Us on Facebook
We need to get the plight of the turtle and how our local and global communities can help out far and wide. By liking us on Facebook, you can help share our posts and build our community.
6. Buy a T-shirt or Keep-Cup
Another great way to spread the word is by wearing one of our awesome t-shirts or using one of our keep-cups.
7. Subscribe to our Monthly River Health Snapshot
Each month, we send out a River Health Snapshot, reporting on the parameters that are of particular importance to turtle recovery - Available Phosphates, Dissolved Oxygen and Water Temperature. Most months, we also include a report on Faecal Coliform.
Sign up here
8. Come to an Event
Bringing people together around the health of the river is incredibly important for our future.
9. Volunteer with Us
We are currently recruiting for Roving and Holler Volunteers.
Roving Volunteers support the testing at core sites and step in if our water testing volunteers are ill or away.
Holler Volunteers help build support for this innovative citizen science project. Holler volunteers may be interested in volunteering to distribute flyers/posters, attend market stalls, collect donations, talk to prospective sponsors or assisting with social media.
We have five local schools involved in the Bellingen Riverwatch program:
Bellingen High School
Bellingen Public School
Chrysalis Steiner School
Orama Primary School
Repton Primary School
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.
This turtle has resided in this river and only this river for over 200 million years.
The Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (Myuchelys georgesi) is a species of short-necked freshwater turtle in the family Chelidae and is iconic to the Bellinger River, NSW. Previously known as Elseya georgesi, the Bellinger River turtle was first observed by John Cann in 1971, the Bellinger River Snapping is restricted to only a 25 kilometre stretch of the Bellinger River.
Photo: Juvenile Bellinger River Snapping turtle Myuchelys georgesi.
Photo credit: Kristen Petrov
Photo: Distribution of Bellinger River Snapping Turtle
Photo credit: Ian Roth- NSW, Department of Primary Industries
Bellinger River Snapping turtles should not be confused with the non-native short-necked turtle Emydura macquarii which also inhabits the Bellinger River. Distinctive features on Bellinger River Snapping turtles include a yellow stripe from the angle of the jaws, as well as distinct ‘bar-bells’ on the chin.
The Bellinger River Snapping turtle nests between October and December and lays one clutch of 10-25 eggs. Eggs are laid in excavations on the river banks. Hatchlings appear after approximately 72 days in the nests and reach sexual maturity at 8 years for females and 5-6 years for males. Bellinger River turtles prefer deep waterholes with rocky substrate and bedrock where they can camouflage. These turtles obtain a high proportion of their diet from benthic macro-invertebrate communities. As juveniles, they have strong leniencies towards carnivorous diets, while as adults they are omnivorous, commonly consuming caddisfly larvae, pyralidae larvae (moth larvae), ribbon weed and algae.
In 2005 the population was estimated between 3100-5900 individuals. After abnormal rainfall conditions and historically low river levels the population declined and in early 2015 was estimated between 1,600 and 3,200 individuals. However on the 18th February 2015, the population experienced a mass mortality event brought on by a novel virus. Affected turtles displayed symptoms of blindness, were malnourished and lethargic.
Photo: Affected Bellinger River Snapping turtle Photo credit: Rowan Simon
River landholders hold an important role in maintaining river health and supporting the recovery of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle.
1. Restore estuarine river banks
Improving the condition of the riparian vegetation and stabilising riverbanks is important for maintaining water quality and habitat for aquatic animals in the Bellinger and Kalang rivers. Without action to protect and restore these important areas, it is likely we will see a gradual decline in the health of our waterways through reduced water quality, the loss of riparian vegetation for birds and wildlife, and the smothering of macroinvertebrates, native fish and seagrass habitats with sediments washed into the river from eroding riverbanks.
Native vegetation plays a vital role in river bank restoration. Whilst erosion and deposition of sediment are natural river processes, the accelerated rates of erosion seen today are the result of removal of native vegetation over time through land clearing, over-grazing and other development pressures. This in turn leads to the loss of productive land and valuable habitat and impact on water quality and aquatic habitats downstream. The affects of accelerated erosion are especially significant during floods.
Disturbance or destruction of river bank vegetation and weed invasion has also severely limited the ability of river banks to repair themselves through natural regeneration of vegetation between flood events.
In their current state, river banks need active assistance and management to maintain and improve their stability and resistance to erosion. Planting river banks with native species which are adapted to the pressures of this dynamic environment is a valuable way to ensure our river estuaries remain healthy.
The vegetation naturally occuring on estuarine river banks changes as the river water becomes less salty upstream. The Bellinger and Kalang estuaries have four vegetation zones characterised by particular groupings of plant species and their preferred location on the river bank. See the following for more info:
Download Bellinger River Estuary Revegetation Guide leaflet (link coming soon)
Download Ecohealth: An aquatic ecosystem health check for the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers (link coming soon)
Download Growing Lomandra from Seed, Bellinger Landcare (link coming soon)
2. Best Practice Stock Management
Best practice for stock management should address the following aspects: Fencing, off-river Stock watering points, Formed access points. Stock management is vital for riparian health to reduce:
- Damage to riparian vegetation from grazing and trampling, leaving banks exposed.
- Compaction of soil by hard hooves, subsequent erosion and degradation of the river structure.
- Pollution resulting from sediment washing into the water course from erosion sites.
- Stirring of sediment and damage to aquatic habitats caused by cattle loitering in streams.
- Pollution resulting from cattle defecation.
- Weed growth, through high nutrient loads from dung.
- Stock exposure to water borne parasites, disease and footrot.
Download “Bellinger River System Landholder Booklet: Best Practice for a Healthy River” (link coming soon)
Request a copy of the booklet from Bellingen Shire Council on email@example.com
3. Best Practice Fox Management
Turtle nest predation by foxes are a major threat to the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle. Wild dogs kill and maul stock, threaten populations of native animals, have a social impact on farming and rural families, and are a reservoir for disease spread.
Some misconceptions around baiting are that 1080 doesn’t work and that it kills wildlife, particularly quolls. In a 2007 baiting trial of 19 spotted-tail quoll, it was found that most, if not all quolls survived.
It is important that landholders make use of all legal control methods. These include:
Group baiting gives best control options. It is important to target optimum times of the year, be proactive, strategic, and targeted.
Trapping is a great method for follow up after coordinated baiting programs or for targeting specific dogs. There are legal requirements involved.
A recent letter to the Bellingen Shire Courier Sun by a farmer in Kalang called for more landholders in the Kalang Valley to join in our winter baiting program in 2019. To join, landholders have to do a free four-hour course with the Ag Dept to obtain a licence to bait. To enquire about the times and locations of baiting courses, contact Mick Elliott of the Grafton Ag Dept on 0408 352 174.
- “Declared Pests Wild Dogs and Foxes” presentation by Mick Elliot, North Coast Local Land Services.
- “Wild dog baiting program in Kalang” - letter to Bellingen Shire Courier Sun by Philip Robertson Smith, Oct 11 2018
4. Report turtle sightings
Please report turtle sightings using Turtle SAT, and report nesting sights, and sick or dead turtles at the contacts below. Learn more about how to identify a Bellingen River Snapping Turtle here. See also www.environment.nsw.gov.au/threatenedSpeciesApp.
To report nesting sites, contact (02) 6659 8200 or Bellinger.firstname.lastname@example.org
To report sick or dead turtles, phone 131 555
13 December 2018
Image/Video: Lisa Foote
13 December 2018
Image/Video: Lisa Foote
Taronga Zoo Sydney, 12 March 2017
Image/Video: Taronga Zoo Sydney
Western Sydney University, 29 September 2016
Image/Video: Western Sydney University
OzGREEN, 7 July 2016
Ricky Spencer, 15 March 2016
Image/Video: Ricky Spencer
Turtles are Keepers
Bellingen Shire Courier Sun, 23 September 2016
Bellingen River health snapshot reveals alarming results
ABC, 26 September 2016
Turtle extinction event bodes ill for our waterways
The Conversation, 25 March 2015
Image: Rowan Simon