Rio Tinto wins environmental award for turtle monitoring

Rio Tinto, which shares its Pilbara ports with some of Australia’s most important turtle breeding grounds, is making efforts to ensure its flippered friends have the best chance at making it to adulthood.

Cape Lambert Port runs adjacent to Bells Beach, which is recognised throughout the Pilbara region as a significant mainland rookery for the threatened flatback turtle.

Since 2002, Rio Tinto has developed and implemented a marine turtle monitoring and management plan (MTMMP) to ensure design, construction and operation of its ports do not disturb the threatened species.

The mining giant has been recognised for its efforts to conserve the turtles, winning the Metso Excellence in Environmental Management award at the 2019 Australian Mining Prospect Awards.

The West Pilbara MTMMP has operated for more than a decade.  Rio Tinto partnered with the  Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions) in 2005 to create a community-based monitoring program (the West Pilbara Turtle Program), which is now in its 15th year. The MTTMP also includes long term monitoring and research programs.

After the success of the project, Rio Tinto formed a partnership with the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) in 2014, providing top-up funding to support monitoring of hawksbill turtles on Rosemary Island, offshore Cape Lambert.

In 2016, Rio Tinto again partnered with the DBCA, this time to monitor the turtle population at another nearby atoll, Delambre Island. Two years later, the project identified that Delambre Island is potentially the largest flatback turtle rookery in the world, meaning data obtained from the project is valuable in monitoring the wider flatback turtle population.

Rio Tinto’s Pilbara ports, salt operations and Robe Valley mines environmental superintendent Martin Buck said the company had seen vast improvements in the number of turtles nesting on Bells Beach since the program started.

“It sounds ironic, but Bells Beach is probably fortunate to be located so close to our operations,” Buck says.

“Its proximity has resulted in a much higher level of protection than you see at other nesting beaches within the region, meaning many of the local stressors evident at those beaches, such as vehicle driving impacts, feral pest activities and artificial light impacts, are not present.

“Between 2010 and 2014 an average of approximately 140 turtles nested per annum. Between 2015 and 2019, that average increased to approximately 228 nests.

“The 2018/2019 summer period was our best yet, with approximately 270 nests being recorded.”

The program is split into three main management focusses; early and proactive risk mitigation during design, targeted management during construction and operational management practices.

To minimise the risk of disruption to the turtles and their environment as early as possible, Rio Tinto starts at the infrastructure design phase by reducing artificial lights on jetties and wharfs as much as possible.

If lighting is absolutely necessary, the company installs low lighting options and also reduces vehicle access to turtle nesting areas.

Construction work is also completed during daylight hours whenever possible to avoid further light disturbance to turtles.

To ensure safety outside of Rio Tinto’s work, it also conducts annual feral animal control programs to prevent animals such as dogs, cats and foxes from feeding on turtle eggs and hatchlings.

In addition to protecting the turtles, Rio Tinto developed the MTMMP for the positive impact on the local community, including involvement with the local Ngarluma traditional owners, who have been trained as guides to take locals and visitors on night tours.

“It’s a special project because not only are the environmental outcomes outstanding, but the way we’ve gone about the work has been closely aligned with our core values; teamwork, integrity, excellence and respect,” Buck says.

“Rather than completing this work in-house, we have proactively partnered with key operational, community, scientific, traditional owner and regulator stakeholders over the long term.

“These partnerships are the foundation of success for the program and result in multiple benefits, such as proactive management of risks within our operations, sharing and publication of critical monitoring data, employment and capability building within traditional owner groups and increasing community awareness around the environment and associated risks.”

Rio Tinto credited its partners and volunteers for their huge efforts in ensuring the program’s success, including the DBCA, Ngarluma people, Australian Institute of marine science, Charles Darwin University, University of Western Australia and West Pilbara turtle program volunteers.

“Volunteers are the lifeblood of the West Pilbara turtle program and without their involvement, the program wouldn’t exist in its current state,” Buck says.

“The volunteers assess nesting activities and are involved in active protection of local beaches, such as beach clean-up activities.

“This involves significant time contribution in difficult conditions, because nesting activities occur during the extremely hot Pilbara summer.”

The MTMMP has been renewed for a further three years, meaning future generations of the Pilbara turtles that breed in the area will be in safe hands for years to come, much to the happiness of Rio Tinto, its partners and volunteers.

“We intend to maintain and improve our approach wherever possible,” Buck says.

“The renewal of the West Pilbara turtle program for a further three years resulted in additional funding being allocated for engagement with schools, the traditional Ngarluma owners and community volunteers, as well as more investment for active management activities on local beaches.

“We are incredibly proud of the project and its outcomes.”

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