Mystery of the missing Giant Australian Cuttlefish of Whyalla remains unresolved

As we enter 2012, the mystery of the missing South Australian Giant Australian Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) migration of 2011 remains unsolved. These incredible animals, chameleons of the sea, remain in jeopardy and face a variety of new and old threats in the year ahead. Here’s the short video we produced mid last year to recap.

 

In the months since, our work on the forthcoming feature length documentary film Cuttlefish Country has brought the following information to light:

  • In 2011, cuttlefish numbers dropped to around 20% of the expected breeding population.
  • Cuttlefish counts have been conducted by BHP Billiton and SANTOS, but neither party has officially disclosed data from the 2011 season.
  • A commitment of over $100,000 for research has been made, combining State and Federal grants monies. Granted very late in the season, some habitat mapping was undertaken by SARDI (South Australian Research & Development Institute) immediately, but what further action will be taken in 2012 is unknown.
  • Cuttlefish usually start appearing at Black Point and Stony Point reefs when the water temperature drops to 17 degrees celsius. This temperature drop occurred 6 weeks later than expected in 2011, potentially delaying or deterring the breeding aggregation. The problem these animals face is a shortage of suitable rocky reef habitat to lay and attach their eggs to.
  • Unusually high rainfall in the area introduced nutrient, and other other inputs via run-off into Upper Spencer Gulf.
  • The gulf is a slow flushing system, which can take years to fully circulate with open ocean, as described by the region’s pre-eminent oceanographer Jochen Kaempf.
  • A larger than usual cuttlefish aggregation occurred at Backy Point, on the northern side of Fitzgerald Bay. This is usually a secondary breeding site, with limited reef habitat for egg laying.
  • Annually a targeted commercial take of approximately 20 tonnes of cuttlefish are caught just outside the no-take zone at Point Lowly. The protected area is being reviewed, and is likely to be expanded in the future to further protect the animals as they pass Point Lowly to join the breeding aggregation. Seasonal protection for the Backy Point aggregation is also under consideration.

 

Map showing cuttlefish breeding locations & desal outfall

 

  • All male and female cuttlefish die after mating and laying, which leaves the population very vulnerable during the spring time. At this time, the adults have expired, and the majority of the population exists as unhatched eggs.
  • Eggs have been found washed ashore at Point Lowly beach by locals, along with at least one other cephalopod species. Many eggs have not been adhering to rocks as they typically do. Loose eggs have been seen by local divers, slushing around in deep-water gutters away from the protection of the ledges they are carefully placed beneath by laying females.
  • A groundwater contamination case at Port Bonython, adjacent to the Stony Point reef is progressing through court between SANTOS and the South Australian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Hydrocarbons were discovered in groundwater at the site. It is possible that contamination entered the marine environment. SANTOS brought this matter to public attention themselves, and responded with excavation and construction of a subterranean barrier wall to prevent the contamination reaching the marine environment. It is unknown how successful this response was and we are awaiting a representative from SANTOS to detail this matter.
  • Observations from local divers suggest that an unusually low proportion of the population chose to gather at Stony point in 2011. Stony Point usually has the highest density of cuttlefish of the region’s rocky reefs.
  • Clean Seas have relocated their sea-pen kingfish farming operations from adjacent Fitzgerald Bay, south to Arno Bay, prompted by problems with fish mortality and incidence of parasites.
  • The Government of South Australia has announced that there is a problem with low snapper stocks in the region, citing an increase in commercial take to be the most likely significant impact.
  • Plans to expand the Port Bonython export facility, which would include the construction of an additional 2 kilometre long jetty over the Stony Point breeding site appear to have stalled, due to lack of immediate commercial interest. The junior mining companies which had previously considered using the expanded facility have sought out, or are currently seeking out alternative export pathways. These are likely to involve several new and/or expanded port facilities in Whyalla and elsewhere on Eyre Peninsula. Regardless, potential future port expansion at Port Bonython remains a threat.
  • The Olympic Dam mine expansion received environmental approval from state and federal governments in October, 2011. The massive BHP Billiton project plans to build a 280 megalitre desalination plant at Point Lowly, which will output brine into Upper Spencer Gulf, adjacent to the lighthouse. Prior to construction, BHP Billiton will release an environmental management plan and await final approval (or rejection) of the proposed expansion by BHP Billiton’s board in mid 2012. The EPA will finally set licensing conditions for the plant’s operation closer to construction. The plant’s operation is expected to commence in approximately 7-11 years time, according to BHP Billiton’s project timeline.
  • Cuttlefish eggs are particluarly vulnerable to increased salinity (a probable result from the desal plant’s brine outflow, due to the region’s slow flushing oceanography, and distance from open ocean). Suggestions have been made for publicly accessible, real-time online monitoring of salinity and oxygen levels in the water at the breeding grounds.
  • The Upper Spencer Gulf region has been proposed for the establisment of a new Marine Park, which includes all key cuttlefish breeding sites and Upper Spencer Gulf, extending north to Port Augusta. The process of declaring this and other parks in South Australia has stalled. The region currently houses three long-established Marine Aquatic Reserves with ‘no take’ zones at Yatala Harbor, Blanche Harbor and Cowled’s Landing. These protect fish nurseries for a variety of other fish, sharks and crustaceans. The region also provides critical breeding habitat for Spencer Gulf’s lucrative commercial prawn fishery.

We are deeply concerned for the future of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish of Upper Spencer Gulf. We are afraid that research and monitoring will not be sufficient to save this amazing animal’s population from collapse. This population and its breeding aggregation is not only a true wonder of the underwater world, but it provides a vital food source for larger predatory species, including the much-loved local bottlenose dolphin pod. It would be an embarrassing and deplorable loss for South Australia and the world to see this population jeopardised further by the hasty approval of new industrial developments at Point Lowly or Port Bonython. It would be a responsible decision by the South Australian State Government to place a moratorium on further industrial developments on the Point Lowly Peninsula (aka Port Bonython) and to make recommendations for alternative locations in less biologically sensitive areas. Locals in Whyalla have previously called for the rezoning of the peninsula on many occasions, including councillor Eddie Hughes.

If you’re yet to sign our petition for the relocation of the BHP Billiton desalination plant which has been approved for Point Lowly, please do so at the link below. You can also support our ongoing efforts to campaign in defense of the cuttlefish’s future through the production of our film, by purchasing some campaign merchandise.

 

 

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Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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