More information about whales in Australia
Ocean noise pollution is a growing global problem. A cacophony of man-made sounds pollute the otherwise peaceful underwater world that cetaceans inhabit.
Blasting airguns are used by the oil and gas industry to prospect for oil in important whale habitat such as the Bonney Upwelling and off Kangaroo Island. Pile-driving with huge hammers in order to build offshore wind farms and other construction projects is also extremely noisy.
These, as well as other loud explosions or drilling/dredging activities, can kill or injure the animals directly through temporary or permanent deafness. Noises can also cause animals to flee from key habitats for feeding, breeding and calving, which can impact individual and population health, reducing reproductive success for species already struggling to recover.
Ship noise, especially the sound propellers make churning up water, can affect the ability of whales to communicate, navigate and find mates. What’s more, ship noise is now known to increase levels of stress hormones in endangered right whales. Whether it is loud booms or constant white noise, research has shown whales are harmed by this activity as outlined in “Breaking Silence: How Our Noise Pollution is Harming Our Whales.”
IFAW has been very active in addressing ocean noise with a number of campaigns:
- We educate the public on the global problem of ocean noise
- We commission studies on the main source of ship noise
- We support the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) development of guidelines to reduce the levels of underwater noise created by new and existing ships
- We create resources that explain threats and where they are located
Whale injuries and deaths from ship strikes are a problem worldwide, and one to which Australia is not immune. As humpback whales continue their successful recovery from the toll of commercial whaling in the past, they have been exposed to newer risks. For example, this population growth, combined with a massive growth in shipping around 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. A previous Australian government administration had committed to producing a ship strike strategy, but their efforts never came to fruition.
IFAW supports improving the draft North East Shipping Management Plan which will dictate how the risk of shipping traffic through the Great Barrier Reef is managed. Currently, it barely addresses the issue of ship strikes, promising only to improve reporting and recording of incidents. 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.
The shipping industry in nearby New Zealand is introducing a voluntary protocol to slow down vessels moving in and out of Auckland to protect the Hauraki Gulf’s resident population of Bryde’s whales from deadly ship strikes.
These strikes have taken a heavy toll on the whales in recent years, and research by Dr Rochelle Constantine at the University of Auckland demonstrates that slowing vessels down offers the best chance of reducing fatalities.
IFAW has been involved in other efforts to alleviate the ship strike problem:
- IFAW promotes awareness among ocean-going vessels of all types when it comes to navigating safely among whales and dolphins in our ‘Watch Out, Whales About’ programme.
- IFAW supports programmes and legislation in other parts of the world that mitigate ship strikes. The U.S.’s ship strike reduction rule, enacted in December 2008, restricts vessels of 65 feet or greater to speeds of 10 knots or less in seasonal management areas along the East Coast to reduce the chances of North Atlantic right whales being injured or killed by ships. The U.S. government has followed through with enforcement. In 2012, three large commercial vessels were given civil penalties for violating seasonal speed limits designed to protect one of the most endangered whale species in the world and paid these penalties in full.
- IFAW and its partners unveiled a new Apple iPad and iPhone app, ‘Whale Alert’ for the East Coast of the United States that alerts mariners when endangered right whales are in the area. When alerted, vessels can slow down in compliance with regulations to prevent collisions with large ships. We hope that technology can serve as a model for other areas.
Protection for certain whale species commenced in Australia during the 1930s after the effects of whaling on populations became apparent. Commercial whaling in Australia came to an end in 1978 with the closure of Australia's last whaling station, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company. The following year Australia adopted an anti-whaling policy and started to focus on international protection and conservation.
With the International Whaling Commission (IWC) proving unable to address the issue of Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling despite the global moratorium on commercial whaling and its declaration of the waters around Antarctica as a whale sanctuary, IFAW sought to encourage countries to also raise the issue of whaling outside the IWC.
The whales that inhabit Australia’s waters migrate to and from Antarctica in the summer months, so IFAW—particularly its Sydney staff—became involved in efforts to protect whales from Japanese hunting.
In May 2010, Australia launched a case at the International Court of Justice against Japan’s ‘scientific' whaling, the first ever case brought before the court involving a wildlife or environmental issue. In November 2011, New Zealand announced its intention to intervene in the case. In June 2013, the World Court heard oral arguments from Australia and Japan before hearing New Zealand’s intervention.
IFAW believes this hearing in The Hague demonstrated that there is no scientific value to Japan’s ‘research’ whaling. IFAW advocates that the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary finally becomes a place of genuine protection for the hundreds of thousands of whales that migrate there to feed every year.
Sanctuaries are essentially underwater national parks, where whales and other marine creatures should beprotected from human actions and threats. Depending upon who manages the sanctuary, it may be called a marine protected area, a marine sanctuary or simply a whale sanctuary. An individual sanctuary may protect important feeding, breeding, birthing or migratory areas for one or more species of whale, dolphin and porpoise.
These sanctuaries can help depleted whale populations recover, ensure the overall health of marine ecosystems and protect the natural heritage of coastal communities. Some of these sanctuaries ban only whaling activities while others have a broader scope, including:
- Regulation of vessel interactions and area closures;
- Monitoring specific fishing practices or seasonal closures;
- Developing pollution protocols for habitat protection.
In 2012, the Australian Government established the new Commonwealth marine reserves network, ensuring that the regions around the continent are now legally binding protected areas, safeguarding much of Australia’s waters and marine life for years to come.
In the most recent public consultation phase on these proposals, the Government received 80,000 submissions from Australian citizens.
The waters around Antarctica, which comprise 10% of the Earth’s oceans, are particularly important to whales. A group of environmental organisations and celebrity supporters, including IFAW, have come together to form the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA).
This group has lobbied before the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the body that regulates the Antarctic marine environment. AOA advocates for the world's largest network of fully protected marine reserves and marine protected areas in the ocean around Antarctica.
Two proposals to protect East Antarctica and the Ross Sea were stifled at the 2013 CCAMLR meetings in Hobart when Russia and the Ukraine actively blocked them from passage. The AOA continues to pursue the proposals in subsequent meetings.
Together with colleagues from Marine Conservation Research and a number of experienced Australian whale researchers, IFAW representatives have studied whales off the west coast of Kangaroo Island.
On the SV Pelican researchers conducted a visual and acoustic survey, looking for whales during daylight hours in suitable conditions and using underwater microphones called hydrophones for acoustic monitoring 24 hours a day. As whales and dolphins spend very little time at the surface and use sound to communicate, navigate and find prey and mates underwater, acoustic monitoring is one of the most effective methods to detect these animals.
The waters off Kangaroo Island are considered to be a whale hotspot, but detailed scientific data is severely lacking for this area, particularly during the months of April and May. This is the location and time of year that Bight Petroleum, an oil and gas company, has historically conducted seismic testing. IFAW is very concerned that such an intrusive, noisy activity is happening in a place where a thorough assessment of its importance to whales has yet to be carried out.
IFAW has provided grant funding to groups researching whale habitat, including the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, Southwest Whale Ecology Study (SouWEST), and the Oceania Project.
IFAW presented Murdoch University’s Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) with one of its Animal Action Awards for Research in 2012, recognising it for its work to protect dolphins, whales and dugongs.
IFAW representatives also participated in a National Science Week event, supported by the Government of South Australia. ‘An Evening with Cetacean Experts’ took place in August 2013.
In order to ensure the conservation of whales and dolphins in the Pacific Islands region, it is our responsibility to minimise the disturbance caused by our presence. To help achieve this, IFAW has come up with a set of best practice guidelines on whale and dolphin watching. Their purpose is to ensure the sustainable development of the whale watching industry in the Pacific Islands region. These guidelines constitute a framework that should be interpreted at a national level by individual countries and territories. They apply to all types of whale watching, including dedicated, seasonal and opportunistic commercial operators, and recreational vessels.
The overarching principles of these guidelines are:
• Ensuring the conservation of cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific Islands region.
• Ensuring a precautionary approach to the development and management of whale watching in the region.
• Minimising the impact of whale watching activities in the region.
• Promoting and respecting cultural values of whales, dolphins and the marine environment to Pacific Island peoples.
• Providing long-term economic benefits and opportunities to local communities.
IFAW commissioned Economists at Large to undertake a major report to measure the change in the global whale watching industry between 1998 and 2008. According to the report, the industry grew strongly, expanding across more countries and territories, and continuing to develop in those countries with long established industries. In 2008, 13 million people participated in whale watching in 119 countries and territories, generating total expenditure of US $2.1 billion. Across the globe, the whale watching industry has grown at an average rate of 3.7% per year, comparing well against global tourism growth of 4.2% per year over the same period.
Oceania, Pacific Islands and Antarctica have continued to establish themselves as global whale watching locations, the region having grown at nearly 10% per year and accounting for nearly 2.5 million whale watchers in 2008 (20% of global whale watchers). 17 countries and territories now offer whale watching (12 in 1998) from Antarctica to Guam, and across the South Pacific, including the largest regional industries in Australia and New Zealand. Whale watching accounted for nearly $330 million total expenditure in this region.
IFAW promotes awareness among ocean-going vessels of all types when it comes to navigating safely among whales and dolphins in our ‘Watch Out, Whales About’ programme.
In Australia, IFAW is particularly concerned with oil and gas exploration around our shores and how it affects whales.
All around Australia oil and gas companies are closing in on vital whale habitats. Leases covering endangered blue whale habitat and right next to calving grounds for endangered southern right whales are handed over to oil and gas companies to explore with their deafening seismic airguns and accompanying vessels.
We encourage policies to take the needs of cetaceans in the area into account, excluding development in key habitat altogether, requiring use of new, quieter technologies and when necessary conducting seismic surveys only during particular times of year when whales are not present.
Many ocean areas around Australia were precluded from inclusion in the country’s marine reserves network due to push back from the offshore oil and gas industry. Management of important whale habitats in these areas has become a significant unresolved issue.
IFAW is deeply concerned with plans by Bight Petroleum Pty Ltd (an Australian subsidiary of Canadian Bight Petroleum Corp) for deafening seismic surveys in the waters off Kangaroo Island. This is an area renowned for many species of marine life and a vital feeding ground for endangered blue whales. Research conducted by IFAW in 2013 confirmed that there is no good time of year to conduct seismic testing in this area as it is an important habitat for a range of sperm whales year round. More than 18,900 people wrote to demand the Federal Government protect Kangaroo Island’s precious marine life from the dangers of oil and gas exploration. We follow the assessment process with interest.
Australia is watching carefully the development in Sakhalin, Russia regarding Western Gray whales. The future of this animal hangs in the balance, with fewer than 30 breeding-age females left in the world’s oceans. Although the plight of the Western Gray whale is well known, the governments and oil companies of the world seem oblivious and are offering no protection. Russia’s top oil company is conducting seismic surveys in the region, blasting the delicate environment with intense underwater sound. Officially the survey is meant to keep a 2.5km distance from any whales, but limited visibility means in reality the scientists will have no way of knowing where the whales are, and will be sending out deadly noise pollution with impunity. Our Australian office is also tracking the outcome of the vote taken by the European Parliament in 2013 to ensure oil and gas exploration utilizing underwater sonar is subject to Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). IFAW believes the vote was a significant step in reducing marine noise pollution.