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Response of dugongs to boat traffic: The risk of disturbance and displacement

Hodgson, A.J.ORCID: 0000-0002-9479-3018 and Marsh, H. (2007) Response of dugongs to boat traffic: The risk of disturbance and displacement. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 340 (1). pp. 50-61.

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Disturbance from boats has been documented for many species of marine mammals, especially cetaceans, but has never been quantified for dugongs. Dugongs depend on seagrass for food. This food mostly occurs in shallow coastal areas where boat traffic is high. Thus there is potential for boats to alienate dugongs from critical habitat areas. Using an overhead video observation system (‘blimp-cam’), we observed the behaviour of focal dugongs during controlled boat pass experiments and while no boats were present. The percentage of time focal dugongs spent feeding and travelling was unaffected by boat presence, the number of boat passes and whether a pass included a stop and restart (pass continuity). The duration, distance and direction of a focal dugong's subsurface behaviour were unaffected by number, continuity or distance of boat passes. However, focal dugongs were less likely to continue feeding if the boat passed within 50 m, than if the boat passed at a greater distance. Mass movements of dugong feeding herds in response to experimental and opportunistically observed boats were timed on 42 occasions but only lasted an average of 122 s. These movements occurred in response to boats passing at a range of speeds, and at distances of less than 50 m to over 500 m. The levels of boat traffic we observed may reduce dugongs' feeding time budget by a maximum of 0.8–6%. Thus at present boats appear unlikely to be having a substantive effect on the energy intake of dugong populations at our study site on the Moreton Banks near Brisbane, Australia. However, boat traffic is likely to increase in this fast growing region, raising concern about the future impact of boats on this and other dugong populations.

Item Type: Journal Article
Publisher: Elsevier
Copyright: © 2006 Elsevier B.V.
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