A whale-sized in-tray for the new Australian Government

The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for the Environment - Image: pm.gov.auAs the new Environment Minister, Greg Hunt MP, settles into his office, many of you have been asking what the new government means for whales.

It was good to see whales featured in Coalition pledges on the campaign trail, with Mr Hunt committing to develop a National Whale Stranding Action Plan, a National Dolphin Recovery Plan and support in promoting the many wonderful locations in Australia where you can watch whales from land. We look forward to working with the new government to implement these pledges, but there are plenty of other issues facing whales that need addressing.

Below I take a look at what some of the other whale-shaped items are in the Minister’s in-tray.

Whaling

Minister Hunt’s first foray into the controversial world of whaling could be dealing with the aftermath of a judgment by the International Court of Justice on Australia’s case against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. The judgment could come before next Antarctic whaling season begins at the end of the year, although ICJ processes could mean we have to wait longer.

In a rare outbreak of bipartisanship, the Coalition expressed support for the case initiated by previous Labor governments. They also pledged during the campaign to send a customs vessel to the Southern Ocean during the next whaling season.

Marine reserves

Tony Abbot pledged during the election campaign to suspend and review the new network of Commonwealth marine reserves. The reserves, which followed over a decade of work that first began under John Howard’s government, are a crucial step towards protecting important whale habitat in Australian waters.

It’s a shame that the Coalition, spurred on by vested interests, chose to make them a political football during the campaign, despite widespread support among the public and across the political spectrum. IFAW sincerely hopes that the government’s intended review will not reduce protection of whale habitats.

Offshore oil and gas exploration

Many areas were precluded from inclusion in the marine reserves network due to interest from the offshore oil and gas industry. Management of important whale habitats in these areas has become a significant unresolved issue.

The next phase on environmental assessment of Bight Petroleum’s planned seismic survey off Kangaroo Island is still pending. Research conducted in the area by IFAW in April and May (the proposed window for the seismic survey) confirmed that there is no good time of year to conduct seismic testing in this area as it is important to a range of species throughout the year. We will follow the assessment process with interest and will no doubt be calling on our supporters like you to continue making submissions to protect this and other whale hotspots.

What is desperately needed in Australia is a coherent plan of action to address man-made ocean noise pollution, which must include seismic surveys and other oil and gas related noise, but also shipping noise and naval sonar. Just like any other pollutant in the marine environment, we should be seeking out ways to reduce and limit man-made ocean noise.

Environmental approvals

Offshore oil and gas issues also feature heavily in the new government’s drive to reduce so-called ‘green tape’ i.e. what they see as overly-burdensome laws designed to protect the environment. The government is promising a ‘one-stop-shop’ for environmental approvals. On land this means the dangerous approach of handing over approval powers to state and territory governments with a history of supporting damaging developments.

In the ocean, this extends to a proposal to completely remove the Environment Minister and his department from the approvals process for offshore oil and gas activities, leaving these with an arms-length agency ultimately under the control of the Minister for Industry, the very same person tasked with promoting oil and gas exploration. Not only does this produce an obvious conflict of interest, it risks resulting in lower standards too. Ultimate decision-making authority and oversight must remain with the Environment Minister to ensure there is democratic accountability for decisions made about the marine environment, including whales.

Ship strikes

Whale deaths from ship strikes is a problem worldwide, and one which Australia is not immune to, although unreported and unnoticed strikes mean the true scale of the problem is hard to identify. As humpback whales continue their successful recovery from the horrendous toll of commercial whaling in the past, this has the unfortunate consequence of exposing them further to newer risks. For example, this population growth, combined with massive projected growth in shipping in the Great Barrier Reef, is increasing the risk of ship strikes to these animals in a critical breeding and calving area. As shipping increases generally around Australia, other whales will also be exposed to greater risk. The previous government had committed to producing a ship strike strategy, but that never saw the light of day before the election. Let’s hope the new government takes up the mantle.

An immediate priority, however, is to improve the draft North East Shipping Management Plan, which will dictate how the risk of shipping traffic through the Great Barrier Reef is managed. At present, it makes scant mention of ship strike, promising only to improve reporting and recording of incidences. While better information is crucial, this alone will not reduce the risk to whales. Proven measures like re-routing traffic to avoid whale habitat and speed restrictions to reduce the likelihood of fatal strikes need to be implemented now ahead of dramatic shipping growth.

Entanglement

Another topic of concern is the recent reports of growing entanglements of humpback whales off the coast of WA (22 last year, up from four in 2010). There have also been a number of entanglements in shark nets on the east coast, although thankfully all the whales have been successfully freed. Like ship strikes, entanglements are set to continue growing as humpback whale populations grow.

Recovery plans

Recovery plans for endangered whales, like the blue and southern right whale, have been updated recently but we are still awaiting an updated plan for the humpback whale, which will need to address issues like ship strike and entanglement if it is to be a success. As mentioned above, the Coalition pledged during the campaign that they would create a dolphin recovery plan. This will need to address a wide variety of issues, such as coastal development, habitat loss, bycatch and recreational boating, with the issues varying widely by species and by location.

The key to all these recovery plans is to make them meaningful by fully resourcing and implementing the necessary actions. Many threatened species in Australia are still awaiting plans despite having been listed long ago. Others have out-of-date plans or merely ‘paper plans’ where nothing is being done to implement them. The Coalition’s election pledge to create a Threatened Species Commissioner may go some way in helping address this. This could be good news not just for whales but other native terrestrial wildlife in desperate need of help.

-- MC

For more information about our efforts to protect whales visit our campaign page.

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