Marine turtles and dugongs are protected under the Australian Government’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which lists them as marine and migratory species, and also by various state and Northern Territory legislation. Six species of marine turtle are protected by the EPBC Act – the leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley turtle are each listed as endangered (which means that these species may become extinct if the threats to their survival continue), whilst the green, hawksbill and flatback turtle are each listed as vulnerable (which means that they may become endangered if threats to their survival continue). Dugongs are also classified as vulnerable to extinction under the 2009 World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, which indicates that they face a high-risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.
Despite being protected, dugongs and marine turtles can be legally hunted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993, which operates to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples with a native title right to hunt, gather, collect and fish or conduct a cultural or spiritual activity. The traditional or subsistence hunting of dugongs and turtles plays an important social and cultural role for coastal aborigines in many parts of northern Australia and the meat provides a source of protein for these communities.
The RSPCA believes that where animals are legitimately hunted for subsistence, this must be conducted humanely and with regard for the conservation status of the species involved.