Seabird Habitat Restoration Program - Montague Island Nature Reserve

Justin Gilligan
Published: 05 January 2022
Last edited: 05 January 2022
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Summary

Montague Island Nature Reserve is located off the south coast of New South Wales, Australia. It is managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) as a haven for wildlife, with thousands of seabirds, including penguins, shearwaters and petrels nesting on the island every year. It is also an important haul out and breeding site for hundreds of Australian and Long Nose Fur seals.

Montague Island is a conservation success because extensive areas of seabird nesting habitat have been restored. The Seabird Habitat Restoration Project eradicated introduced pests, controlled weeds and restored native vegetation.

NPWS collaborated with researchers to identify the best habitat restoration method for the island and mobilised volunteers and local communities. Montague Island now provides a critical vertebrate pest–free environment for nine seabird species. Three of these species have recently been attracted to the island, including the threatened Gould’s Petrel which has established a breeding population.

Classifications

Region
Oceania
Scale of implementation
Local
Ecosystem
Coastal forest
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Theme
Adaptation
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Ecosystem services
Habitat fragmentation and degradation
Invasive alien species
Islands
Restoration
Science and research
Species management
Species Conservation and One Health Interventions
Species Monitoring and Research
Invasive Species Management/Removal
Species Intensive Management (in situ or ex situ)
Species Conservation Planning
Challenges
Erratic rainfall
Increasing temperatures
Ocean warming and acidification
Shift of seasons
Invasive species
Sustainable development goals
SDG 4 – Quality education
SDG 8 – Decent work and economic growth
SDG 14 – Life below water
SDG 15 – Life on land
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 5: Habitat loss halved or reduced
Target 9: Invasive alien species prevented and controlled
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction
Target 14: Ecosystem services

Location

Montague Island, Narooma, New South Wales
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Challenges

Montague Island was used for ceremony and hunting by local Aboriginal people for thousands of years. In 1881, after the colonisation of Australia, a lighthouse and keepers’ cottages were constructed, and lighthouse keepers and their families brought goats, rabbits, mice and domestic animals that would later become pests. Native vegetation was grazed and damaged and invaded by weeds. Seabirds continued to breed on the island, but the quality of their breeding habitat declined due to the impact of these pests and weeds.

Kikuyu grass was introduced in the 1990’s and spread rapidly throughout seabird nesting habitat. In 2000, kikuyu grass covered over 45% of the island. Large areas of seabird nesting habitat, previously used by nesting little penguins and burrowing shearwaters, became disused and birds became entangled in its thick stems and died. Scientists predicted if no intervention was undertaken, the grass would have potentially spread across south Montague Island within 12 years.

Beneficiaries

The restoration project has benefited:

  • NSW NPWS
  • Local community
  • Seabird populations
  • Bush regeneration organisations 
  • Research community
  • Tourism industry

How do the building blocks interact?

The ambitious nature and large scale of this project meant that all the building blocks were crucial and interconnected. 

The strong foundation of scientific knowledge and involvement on expert scientists provided managers with confidence to proceed. The strong community support and involvement elevated the profile of the project and helped ensure it remained a priority for NPWS and the NSW Environmental Trust in the long term. Significant external funding also ensured that NPWS could complete the project using the relatively expensive, but effective methods developed by scientists and managers.

Impacts

The extent, distribution and condition of seabird nesting habitat on Montague Island has significantly improved since the implementation of the Seabird Habitat Restoration Project. As a result, NPWS has established a vertebrate pest free status on the island, reduced the cover of kikuyu grass in seabird nesting habitat to less than 25% and replanted more than 80,000 native plants. Each year more than 22,000 breeding pairs of nine species of seabirds nest on the island. These include short-tailed, wedge-tailed and sooty shearwaters, Little Penguins, silver gulls and crested terns. Since habitat restoration, three seabird species Gould’s Petrel, White-faced Storm Petrel and Caspian Terns (not previously recorded on the island) have established breeding colonies. Seabird populations on Montague Island also support healthy regional populations with populations established on other islands.

The abundant wildlife and historic lighthouse make Montague Island one of the most well-known destination for visitors. Over 6000 people visit the island each year for guided education day tours and overnight stays supporting a thriving local tour boat industry.

Montague Island is a global example of how to restore an island. It is an important research site and studies here have contributed significantly to our understanding of seabird population dynamics including the impact of climate.

Story

Justin Gilligan

Scientific research and monitoring is a critically important activity on Montague Island as the research informs local management on the island, but also contributes to our understanding of regional and global ecosystems and the impact of climate change. Research on the natural values of Montague Island has contributed significantly to our understanding of wildlife populations on the island and improved management of island ecosystems in other places.  The methods used for the Seabird Habitat Rehabilitation Project, approach distances for seals and other marine wildlife, management of visitors and threshold levels for management effort of weed control are all based on the results of scientific research. As a result, Montague Island provides a global example of how to restore an island. The results and lessons from Montague Island are used to develop management strategies in other islands along the NSW and Victorian coastline.

Montague Island is an excellent place to undertake wildlife research with dedicated housing and facilities for researchers and regular transport to the island and easy access to seabird, shorebird and seal colonies making it the ‘perfect laboratory’. Montague Island boasts the world’s longest running continuous seabird surveys that have been undertaken annually since 1960 by a group of world renowned seabird researchers. Originally from universities, these researchers are now retired, but have formed The Montagu Island Partners Research Group and continue to work with NPWS to survey seabird populations annually. This data provides an excellent basis for an analysis of the effectiveness of the Seabird Habitat Restoration Project and ongoing management efforts by NPWS as well as revealing the impact of weather events and climate change impacts on seabird populations in NSW and globally.

Dr Amy Harris developed the methods for the removal of kikuyu grass, while protecting seabirds on Montague Island, as her PhD research. She was supervised by these researchers. She now works for NPWS as the Montague Island ranger, thereby continuing her long-term connection with the island and ensuring continuity of the knowledge of the island and the research that helps inform adaptive management.

Contributed by

joanne.wilson_38184's picture

Joanne Wilson New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service

Other contributors

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service