A mixed bag of emotions for whales in the coming Australian marine reserves
The announcement by the Australian Government of its proposed marine reserves network is undoubtedly a hugely important step forward for whales and for ocean protection.
The announcement, a world-first for marine life and historic, for me brings mixed emotions.
Assuming the reserves go ahead, they will be the world’s largest network of marine protected areas and will increase the number of Australian marine reserves from 27 to 60, expanding the national network to cover more than a third of our waters.
That said, this figure includes all types of zoning, including ‘multiple use’ zones that still allow harmful activities such as oil and gas exploration.
Don’t get me wrong, this is certainly an achievement worthy of celebration, as for many years, marine protection has lagged behind that on land and in a single step the Australian Government has made an important stride forward.
And the International Fund for Animal Welfare has been deeply involved in the process leading to this announcement and it’s rewarding to see the Government recognise we haven’t always treated our oceans the way we should.
There is also a sense of disappointment though in the missed opportunity for added protection of whale and dolphin habitats which the reserves could have provided around Australia.
Long story short; the announcement is a mixed bag for whales and dolphins.
As with any government decision there are compromises and the result are some hits and some misses for cetaceans.
So what are the hits and misses?
The hits include large areas of the humpback whale nursery grounds off the Kimberley coast receiving high levels of protection, and high levels of protection for many of the southern right whale calving grounds off the southern coast of WA and off the coast of South Australia.
The network also includes a huge marine reserve in the Coral Sea, with many of the reefs highly protected and a total ban of oil and gas exploration.
The big miss is the insufficient protection for blue whale feeding habitats in the Kangaroo Island Canyons and the Perth Canyons, although there have been some gains here to protect the northern parts of the canyons.
For blue whales, this means that to some extent all three of their recognised feeding grounds in Australian waters are still potentially open to negative impacts from offshore petroleum exploration and production.
Other misses include hardly any protection for sperm whale aggregation sites off the south western coast and insufficient protection for important offshore reefs in the north west like the Rowley Shoals.
In many ways the Environment Department has had its hands tied throughout the whole process in any attempts to address the threats to marine life from the oil and gas industry.
Environment Minister, Tony Burke, has denied that he has been prevented from protecting areas of interest to the oil and gas industry. However, while the many areas that have been protected are important for marine life, they are for the most part areas where the industry doesn't operate or isn't looking to operate in the future.
So while the proposed network is really important progress for marine conservation in general and contains some good wins for whales, the oil and gas industry is the elephant in the room that isn’t being transparently addressed by this process.
This is an unfortunate situation because many of the areas where industry operates or wants to operate are also important habitats for whales and dolphins.
The very real challenge to protect whales and dolphins from threats brought by the oil and gas industry, such as noise pollution, ship strikes and oil spills, remains unresolved.
This is the key challenge now facing the Government as it moves forward with marine protection, and one which, with your help, we’ll be seeking to highlight more over coming months.
What’s clear, though, is that without the huge levels of support for marine protection shown by you, our supporters and the Australian public more widely, the outcome may not have seen any of the wins for whales.
This underlines exactly why we need your help to continue the fight to address the threats to whales and dolphins from the oil and gas industry in areas that haven’t been properly addressed by the marine reserves network.