Dr. Kathy Townsend Keeper of the Sea

dr kathy townsend interview dr rachael marshall

dr RACHAEL marshall _PROFILE


Interview by Dr Rachael Marshall

When I was studying my PhD at the University of Queensland, one of the most inspirational and passionate lecturers and academics that I had the privilege of learning under was Dr Kathy Townsend. Kathy is a research scientists and lecturer whose interests span a multitude of marine topics; she is not only an active research scientist in mantas, turtles, sharks and rays, but is heavily invested in long term conservation management.

Kathy has dedicated her life to marine conservation; she founded the ‘turtles in trouble’ group which I have talked about in previous articles and is setting a benchmark for investigations into the impact of ingested marine debris on marine life. To top it off, Kathy is just one pretty rad lady to know! As I have progressed in my career I often look back at the role Kathy played in shaping my interests, and I am fortunate today in my job, to pick her brains and share information on marine conservation management in Australia.

In this article, I pick Kathy’s brain on where her career started and the inspiring work she is doing today:

PHOTO: Dr Kathy Townsend releases a Green Sea Turtle with a satellite tracker attached on Heron Island GBR.

How did you get into Marine Biology and Ecology? When I was 5 years old, I declared to anyone willing to listen that I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up. This was rather odd as I grew up in Calgary; a land locked city that was a 1000 km away from the nearest ocean. I blame it all on the Jacque Cousteau documentaries that were shown during that time. Silver suited, with sleek dive tanks on their back, exploring unknown worlds inhabited by bizarre and beautiful creatures. How could I resist? I got my dive ticket soon after graduating high school and then went backpacking in Australia, where I finally got to experience the Great Barrier Reef first hand. That experience blew my mind! When I got back to Canada, I enrolled in a general science degree, and then migrated to Australia to finish off my undergraduate degree in Zoology, then honours and PhD in Marine Biology. It has just been an amazing ride ever since, doing and seeing things I could only dream of when living in Calgary. The five year old in me is very pleased with herself.

What is it like living and working on an Island research station off the coast of Brisbane? I have lived and worked on marine research stations for over 18 years. For the first five years, I was based a Heron Island Research Station. Heron is beautiful and I spent thousands of hours in the water studying everything from micro algae to sharks. However, living in an isolated community with only twelve other people, which has no access to shops or entertainment, can be challenging. Food and transport was one of the biggest challenges. We would have to fax in our food order on a Thursday for arrival on the island the following Tuesday via barge. Two days later you would have to put in your order again, despite having just received your first order. Invariably, you would run out of something sooner than you thought and if you didn’t order something, too bad, you just have to do without it for a week. I became very good at substituting for things at hand when cooking. For example, did you know that young pisonia leaves make an excellent substitute for spinach when making a spinach and feta quiche?

As all of our food and ourselves came to the island via boat, weather often caused havoc with deliveries and travel plans. While situated only 2m above sea level, storm surges and cyclones were always a real and present threat. But that was when we all pulled together to help one another out. Food would be shared and everyone would pitch in to “baton down the hatches”. It really was like living on a boat – one that was stuck in one spot.

In 2000, my husband Kev and I were offered the jobs of running the newly built Moreton Bay Research Station (MBRS), located on North Stradbroke Island off of Brisbane. Straddie (as it is affectionately known) has three townships and around 2500 people living on it. After moving from Heron, it was like a bustling city! Cars, shops, post office?! You can buy milk and bread whenever you want too (as long as it is before 5pm)?! What luxuries! Also, unlike Heron, we do not live on the research station, providing a bit of space between work and home life. Working at the research station has been exciting, for when we arrived, it was a brand new building with very little inside. We initially shared a desk and we only had one computer between us. The labs were giant empty rooms that looked more like basketball courts than labs. Over the years, we have helped to make MBRS one of the largest and most active research stations in Australia. The amazing people we have met and the active role we get to play research in the region and the local Straddie community has truly been a privilege.

Photo: Heron Island Sunset GBR, taken by Rachael Marshall

Photo: Heron Island Sunset GBR, taken by Rachael Marshall

What are the key projects that you are working on at the moment?

  • Turtles in Trouble – investigating the impact of ingested marine debris (and other pollutants) on sea turtles and
  • Project Manta – a multidisciplinary study of the biology, ecology and conservation of manta rays. (Check out our Facebook pages for both).

Why is so little known about Manta Rays and what are some of the key learning’s coming out of Project Manta? Manta rays can reach up to 7m from wing tip to wing tip and feed on plankton. The combination of their enormous size and their highly specialised diet means that they cannot easily be kept in captivity. This means they can only be study while in the field, which is expensive and logistically challenging. It was only due to recent developments in technology that we can now effectively study the species. Technology such as pop off satellite tags, acoustic tags with an extensive Australian underwater array to detect the tags, relatively inexpensive digital underwater cameras and video cameras. All of these things have allowed us to discover the secrets of these enigmatic creatures.

Photo Credit: Dr Kathy Townsend – Mantas at Lady Elliot Island GBR

Photo Credit: Dr Kathy Townsend – Mantas at Lady Elliot Island GBR

  • First ever population estimate of manta rays. (a winter population of 532 at Lady Elliot Island – which is a dramatic increase from early estimates which indicated no more than 40 individuals).
  • Photo database of over 815 animals. Many of these sightings have been contributed via citizen scientists, who take photos and then send them into [email protected] or post them on our Facebook page. The oldest animal we currently have in our data base is “Taurus” who was first recorded at Lady Elliot Island in 1985 and is still being seen to this day, making him at least 29 years old.
  • Confirmed annual migration between the GBR and southern NSW. One of our manta’s currently holds the world record for distance travelled in 3 months (750km).
  • Importance of the Capricorn eddy as a feeding site and migration corridor
  • Confirmed distribution of mantas from Torres Straight to Sydney Harbour on the east coast
  • Identification of key aggregation hot spots
  • Increased understanding of oceanographic and physical parameters that cause manta rays to utilise a specific habitat
  • Manta gill rakers that are consumed for Traditional Chinese Medicine and were sourced from the markets in Sri Lanka, were found to have heavy metal levels above what is considered to be safe for human consumption. Targeted fishing for the gill raker trade is considered to be the biggest threat to manta rays globally.
  • The research from our group contributed to getting both Manta alfredi and Manta birostris listed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Redlist for endangered species, listed in appendix 2 of the CITES convention and protected from fishing in Western Australia and Queensland waters. Manta birostris is protected at the Australian federal level, and we are currently gathering data to argue that Manta alfredi also requires protection.

From the large body of work you have done on marine debris impacts on marine wildlife, can you recommend one simple, effective action that the everyday Jack and Jill can take to help conserve marine life? Through our work we have found that sea turtle target both film like plastics (things like plastic bags and lolly wrappers) and balloons. Sea birds on the other hand, target hard floating plastics and once again balloons. The best way to prevent the animals from being harmed is to prevent the offending items from being available to them in their natural habits. To achieve this, a multi pronged approach needs to be taken. This means, reducing the production (manufacturer) and use (consumer) of single use disposable plastic items, such as plastic carrier bags, water bottles etc. and preventing the waste itself from getting into our waterways via storm drain sieves and providing better waste disposal/recycling initiatives (government). And as far as the balloons go, stop mass balloon releases. They do not just disappear when they are released; they pop and end up in our waterways and oceans.

Screen Photo: Dr Kathy Townsend from Turtles in Trouble with the debris extracted from a coastal sub-adult flat back turtle in Moreton Bay. Much of this was plastic bag remnants.Photo: Dr Kathy Townsend from Turtles in Trouble with the debris extracted from a coastal sub-adult flat back turtle in Moreton Bay. Much of this was plastic bag remnants.

As a consumer YOU have incredible power to change the way that business produce their goods. They are driven by market demand, so if the market demands that they use biodegradable packaging or sustainable materials, then they will meet that demand. However, if no demand is in place, they will continue to choose packaging based on marketing potential and cost.

So what are some easy things that people can do?

  • Reduce your use of single use plastics such as plastic carrier bags. Better yet, do not accept them at all. Take reusable bags to the grocery store.
  • Bring along a reusable water bottle instead of purchasing bottled water when you are out.
  • Say no to balloon releases, whether it be at your high school prom, a local sporting event, wedding or a funeral. Let the organisers know the damage it causes.
  • Reject items that come with too much packaging.
  • Respond to local initiatives such as Clean Up Australia day to help clean up your local waterways.
  • Spread the word. Let people know what is happening. Education is the key.

Is the North Stradbroke Island community strongly engaged in marine conservation or is it a battle at times? People who live on an island are here because they are passionate about the ocean. Therefore the majority of the community feels strongly about preserving the marine environment. The traditional owners (the Qandamooka people) are actively involved the management of this unique land and sea country. So as far as the marine environment is concerned, pretty much everyone is on the same page. No one wants to see the thing they love the most destroyed. The terrestrial environment on the other hand, is a completely different story…

You are now getting more and more into triathlons with your two daughters, how long will it be until we see you doing one in a manta ray costume? Haha! I have done one as a pirate in a tutu and superwoman already, so a manta ray may just be on the cards! (Although I am concerned about the aerodynamics of a manta costume, I suspect it may create a lot of drag, possibly lifting me off my bike like a giant kite).

I think we’d all love to see Kathy do a triathlon in a Manta Ray costume!


Turtles in trouble:

Project Manta:

University of Queensland Heron Island Research Station:

University of Queensland Moreton Bay Research Station:

Dr Kathy Townsend Photo: Rubbish washed up on South Gorge Beach, North Stradbroke Island QLD

Photo: Rubbish washed up on South Gorge Beach, North Stradbroke Island QLD

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