June 28, 2016
Christophe Cleguer, PhD
Dugong & Seagrass Conservation Project Technical Advisor
Research Fellow, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University (Australia)
Adjunct Research Fellow, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (New Caledonia)
Unexpectedly a dugong slowly passed very close to our vessel, it was placidly swimming about three meters below the surface.
What made you interested in dugongs?
My interest in dugongs came when I moved to New Caledonia in 2009 after I completed my Masters (MSc) degree at the University of Auckland in New Zealand on the genetics of bivalve larvae!! When I arrived in New Caledonia I took an opportunity to do some volunteer work for a local NGO called ‘Operation Cetaces’ specialized in marine mammal research. Operation Cetaces gave me my first opportunities to get out of the laboratory environment and interact with marine mammals in the stunning lagoons of New Caledonia. My interest in dugongs grew as I finally got to see one during a dolphin monitoring trip in the lagoon near Noumea. I first undertook a review of the information available on dugongs in New Caledonia. This made me realize how little we knew about them in this region and that some research needed to be conducted to help to enhance their conservation and management.
What is it like when you dive and look for dugongs?
I have actually never had to scuba dive to look for dugongs! We use small high wing planes to do this. Nonetheless, if for example our goal was to satellite track dugongs to study their movements then we would use boats to approach, capture and equip them with a transmitter. The capture only lasts for less than 15 minutes during which I am mostly busy making sure the animal is safe and the tracking device is correctly attached to the animal. Perhaps the most enjoyable moment for me is when a tagged dugong is about to be released: at that moment I can take a few seconds to fully realise the luck I have to be in close contact with this unique creature.
at that moment I take a few seconds to fully realise the luck I have to be in close contact with this unique creature
Can you tell us of the most interesting/ exciting moment you have had with dugongs?
The most thrilling moment I have had so far was in New Caledonia during one of my dugong tagging fieldtrips. After several hours out at sea the dugong catching team and I were desperately looking for a dugong to tag. It was a beautiful day, the water was very calm and crystal clear: we could see the coral reefs 10 meters below the boat! Unexpectedly a dugong slowly passed very close to our vessel, it was placidly swimming at probably three meters below the surface. The animal leaned on the side and seemed to be checking us out. The time just stopped and it was such a magical moment that none of us could switch on the boat engine to go after it to capture and tag it, we just let it go…
How dugongs protect themselves from predators?
Dugongs are long-lived slow breeding marine mammals. Thus they need to maximise survival by minimising the risk of predation. Dugongs have morphological characteristics that help them to reduce the risk of predation: a good auditory and tactile perception, a thick skin, a stout rib cage, and a large and fusiform body shape with minimal constriction or appendages that can be easily grasped by predators. Dugongs also minimise predation through behaviour by reducing the risk of encountering a predator by using a refuge such as deep water, and decreasing the consequences of the encounter by increasing the likelihood of escape.
Undertake a literature review to familiarize yourself with the research that has already been conducted on dugongs in your country/area of interest and elsewhere.
What are your top 3 recommendations to other people who are going into the field to monitor dugongs?
- Make sure you know what you are looking for before you start looking for it! That is: clearly define your research question. This will help you identifying the most cost-effective method to answer that question.
- Undertake a literature review to familiarize yourself with the research that has already been conducted on dugongs in your country/area of interest and elsewhere.
- Very carefully think of your sampling design before conducting your study and try to show this design to a statistician and/or contact one of the dugong and seagrass project technical advisors to get some feedback. Going into the field to collect data without a robust sampling strategy will lead to many headaches, regrets and often poor quality data!
Clearly define your research question. This will help you identifying the most cost-effective method to answer that question.
Recent reports by C3, one of our Project Partners, mentions the impact of seaweed farms on dugongs entanglement. Have you made any observations on the impact of seaweed farming on dugongs in your work sites?
I have never seen a dugong entangled in ropes used in seaweed farms, mainly because seaweed farms do not exist where I have worked. However, I have seen dugongs entangled nets used in small scale fisheries. I think the nature of the threats to dugongs vary with location. For example, in the lagoon of Noumea, the main city of New Caledonia, dugongs are hit by boats because boat traffic is important in this region. Not farther than 200km north of Noumea dugongs die because of by-catch in fishing gear (nets, ropes, etc) and illegal hunting. In other regions an accumulation of the above listed threats may occur and may result in the decline of a dugong population. Thus it is important to clearly identify not only where dugongs are and where they are abundant but also to identify and assess the activities that threaten dugongs and seagrass habitats in your area of interest in order to implement adequate management actions.
Carefully think of your sampling design before conducting your study
Why should people/local communities be concerned with the health and survival of dugongs? What is the value added to local communities of protecting dugongs?
Dugongs are an integral part of the culture and tradition of many coastal communities throughout the world. For example in New Caledonia dugong hunting has been conducted for centuries to meet the needs of certain traditional ceremonies, including the ceremony of the New Yam, weddings, bereavements and leaders’ inductions. The dugong is associated with kanak chieftaincy because it is a prestige food, the “meat of the leaders”. But communities in New Caledonia are aware that dugongs are not an unlimited resource and that perpetuating local traditions requires us to protect dugongs. If dugongs were to become extinct, communities would lose their connection to their environment and to their tradition.
Ecologically speaking dugongs maintain the balance in seagrass communities.
A friend of mine recently made this relevant –French- comment: “the dugong is a card of the card castle, if you remove it then the castle will collapse!”
Tell us about your work with Dugongs.
For the last 7 years my aim has been to inform the conservation and management of the dugong in several regions within their range. New Caledonia, in the Pacific Island region is where I started my work on dugongs: I have (1) conducted large scale aerial surveys to assess the temporal changes in the abundance and distribution of dugongs, (2) conducted small scale aerial surveys to understand seasonal changes in habitat use by dugongs in a bay where the conservation value of dugong is very high, (3) assessed the capacity of the current regime of Marine Protected Areas to protect dugongs, (4) used GPS-satellite tracking technology to document the use of space by dugongs in the lagoons of New Caledonia, (5) conducted spatial assessments of threats to dugongs. The outputs from this work are currently used by local resource managers to enhance their dugong conservation and management strategies.
I am currently based in Townsville, Australia, where I continue to work with Professor Helene Marsh who was my PhD co-supervisor. We work on several dugong related research topics such as informing dugong conservation and management in Torres Strait and along the Queensland coast. I am also assisting CMS Dugong Secretariat as a technical advisor to create an E-Resource Kit. The E-Resouce Kit project aims to assist researchers and managers within the dugong range to enhance dugong and seagrass conservation by helping them in identifying the most cost-effective methods to answer their research questions. Finally, I continue to work in close collaboration with the New Caledonian local resource managers and researchers to develop a new dugong action plan for this territory.
What kind of dugong-related research are you doing now?
Currently I am (1) helping to monitor the dugong population in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, (2) working with the dugong-seagrass-community team under the CMS to create an E-Resource-Kit (see my answer to question above), (3) working on publishing some of my research in peer-reviewed journals. In the mean time I am looking for opportunities to conduct new projects to improve dugong monitoring methods at small spatial scales (i.e. use of drones) and to improve dugong movement analysis to better understand their behaviour.
Christophe Cleguer’s Biography
Chris has broad research interests in spatial ecology and conservation of marine mammals with a particular interest in dugong ecology, conservation and management. During his PhD, Chris worked closely with resource managers and local communities in New Caledonia to inform the conservation and management of dugongs at several spatial and temporal scales. Chris has a strong experience in using a range of tools including aerial surveys, GPS-satellite tracking technologies and GIS to investigate the abundance, distribution, movement patterns, habitat use of dugongs and the activities that threaten them. Chris completed his MSc in Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and his PhD at James Cook University in Townsville (Australia) in 2015. Chris is a Research Fellow at the College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University in Townsville, Australia and he is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) in Nouméa, New Caledonia.