Are Speed Restriction Zones an effective management tool for minimising impacts of boats on dolphins in an Australian marine park?
The small, genetically distinct population of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in Port Stephens, New South Wales (NSW), is the target of the largest dolphin-watching industry in Australia and falls within the recently created Port Stephens--Great Lakes Marine Park. The effectiveness of Speed Restriction Zones (SRZs) as a management tool in this area was investigated during their second year of implementation by comparing dolphin usage and behaviour to adjacent Control Zones (CZs) of similar habitat. For this purpose, boat-based surveys and focal follows of dolphin groups were carried out in the zones between August 2008 and August 2009. Results showed that SRZs were more intensely used by dolphin-watching boats in summer. There was no change in dolphins' behaviour and group structure in the presence of dolphin-watching boats in SRZs when compared to dolphin groups within CZs in any season. Dolphin groups including calves used SRZs less during summer. The latter may indicate a shift in area utilisation for those groups during intense boat traffic by dolphin-watching operators. CZs were more important than SRZs as foraging grounds for dolphins in summer. This indicates that SRZs as specified are not effective at minimising boating impacts and that the location of these zones should in time be revised. This is important information for management of dolphin-watching within this marine park and an example of adaptive management in progress. Moreover these results are relevant for conservation of dolphins and the management of dolphin-watching industries elsewhere, particularly new industries, where management strategies may incorporate marine protected areas including zoning plans.
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