More questions for Minister Burke on exploration of whale hotspot off Kangaroo Island

Regular readers will recall we celebrated a temporary reprieve for the whales of Kangaroo Island back at the start of the year, when Environment Minister, Tony Burke, decided Bight Petroleum’s application to conduct deafening seismic testing in this whale hotspot needed further assessment. This result was short-lived, however, as the system is so weak that the company simply withdrew its application and resubmitted a new one.

The public response has been astonishing. Over 18,000 people that we know of, in just two weeks, have demanded that Minister Burke protect this unique marine environment. It’s not hard to see why; even Minister Burke acknowledged the high risk to the area and to blue, southern right and sperm whales, in particular, in his previous decision.

Our analysis of the Bight’s resubmitted proposal gives us no confidence that they have addressed the risks to Kangaroo Island’s whales identified by Minister Burke.

Ahead of his last decision, we outlined some critical questions that Minister Burke needed to ask when considering the application. With Bight’s resubmitted proposal in mind, we’ve revisited those questions to see if they still need answering, and have a list for Minister Burke below that is remarkably similar:

1. Does Minister Burke have adequate information on which species are in the waters of the proposed seismic survey area and how they use this habitat?

We asked this question last time but it has become even more pertinent now Bight have shifted the proposed timing of their survey to March to May 2014. As far as IFAW is aware, no extensive scientific survey has ever taken place in this area at that time of year to substantiate any of Bight’s claims about the presence (or not) of different whales. Even the aerial surveys Bight commissioned back in 2012 included just one single day of surveying in the month of March, and nothing for April or May.

2. Do the mitigation methods proposed by Bight address the risks of displacing animals from critical habitats or causing stress and behavioural change?

We asked this last time too. Bight has proposed some additional mitigation but as with all the mitigation methods, their scope is limited only to reducing the risk of physical harm to whales. They do nothing to address the risks of behavioural change, such as reduced feeding or communication, or the risk of stress caused by repeated exposure to loud man-made noise, which can have long-term implications for health of populations.

These are critical issues when seismic activity is planned in critical whale habitats and there is no option of avoiding times of year when whales are in the area because we know that various different species can be present at different times of year or all year round.

3. Does Minister Burke have the information he needs on Bight’s proposed trial of passive acoustic monitoring?

To try and overcome the problem of detecting species like sperm whales, that can spend up to an hour underwater on a single dive, Bight have conceded to a trial of passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) – listening for the clicks that sperm whales make to determine if they are in the area. Yet Bight’s attitude to PAM, in the previous application and in the resubmitted one, is so dismissive that we have absolutely no confidence in them performing a genuine trial of this technology.

We know from our own research conducted by IFAW’s unique whale research vessel, Song of the Whale, that the successful use of PAM requires careful planning, highly trained operators and effectively designed equipment. Yet Bight have offered no information at all about the methods for their ‘trial’ of PAM, just agreed to do it in the hope that this will tick the box for the Minister. Much more detail is required if this trial is to be taken seriously.

We hope these questions are at the forefront of the Minister’s mind when he assesses this application.

-- MC

P.S. You can help us ask these question directly to Minister Burke by tweeting them to him @Tony_Burke if you have a twitter account. Quote or retweet our @IFAWAU embedded tweets below and follow the collective effort using the #KIWhales hashtag:

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Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
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Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
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Isabel McCrea, Regional Director, Oceania
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IFAW Japan Representative
IFAW Japan Representative
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
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