Are the Government systems designed to protect our whales, failing them?

Sperm whales.Last week it was announced that the Department of Environment has ticked the last box which will allow a Singapore-based company, Arcadia, to carry out seismic testing in an essential feeding ground for sperm whales.

The Bremer basin, off Albany, a beautiful and pristine marine environment, has been approved for testing and is due to be surveyed this November. Using up to 20 seismic airguns, 4,850km2 will be tested by simultaneously firing intense blasts into the water column to penetrate the sea bed looking for energy reserves all day and night, for two months.

This area is important to many marine species and sperm whales are known to occur in this area all year round. These deep-diving gentle giants rely on sound to navigate, communicate, find mates and locate prey and such an increase in ocean noise could be devastating to whales found in this area.

When reviewing the application, the Environment Department had the opportunity to insist that Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) be used in conjunction with visual observations to aid in detecting sperm whales during testing. PAM is done by having hydrophones in the water listening for whale sounds at the same time as observers are looking for them. This increases the chance of detecting whales and is especially useful for deep diving species like sperm whales who may be under the surface for over an hour at a time. This is a simple condition and onet we would have fully expected to see in place for surveying in this region, but it was not included as a requirement. Omitting PAM as a required detection method, when it is readily available and proven to dramatically increase the chances of detecting sperm whales that may be in the vicinity of the airgun blasts, raises many questions about the existing process designed to protect whales from human impact.

It would appear that the systems that have been put in place to protect whales and dolphins in our waters are failing them.  And why would the Australian Government allow seismic testing to be carried out in a habitat known to be essential to sperm whales, without adequate risk reduction required? IFAW is asking just that.

We would like to see Australia become a world-leader in marine mammal protection, but missed opportunities like these mean that our neighbours in New Zealand are really setting the standards. They see simple measures like PAM as essential, and it is now an obligatory measure during all seismic testing in NZ waters. In this case, we can only hope that Australia’s new oil and gas regulator NOPSEMA will review this application and insist on a more through set of conditions that will enable better detection of sperm whales feeding in the area during testing.

--MC

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