Tony Burke's Map Threatens Our Last Great Whale Haven

It is quite some achievement if you have ever met an Australian who has been to the Ningaloo or Kimberley coasts and who doesn’t wax lyrical about walking on the vast, windswept beaches, strewn with massive shells because no-one has been there to collect them, or looking out from vivid red cliffs to a crystal, cobalt blue water, which teems with life. Two humpbacks, mother and calf, breach the waters off the Kimberley Coast.

Even if you’ve only ever seen photos of the region, it’s impossible not to sense what is unique about this magnificent space – its wild beauty is unrivalled anywhere else in the world and perhaps the most special thing about it is hardly anyone goes there.  And that’s exactly why it is one of the most pristine marine environments in the world and somewhere we cannot afford to lose.

The vast catalogue of species that live here or migrate through these waters includes 27 of the 45 species of Australia’s whales and dolphins - threatened ocean giants like blue whales and sperm whales, the Australian snubfin dolphin, only recognised as being a new species as recently as 2005, live in the region. The Kimberley coast is the nursery for the largest, yet still recovering, population of humpback whales anywhere in the world. Every year, these humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic along the coast to the warm tropical waters of the North-west where they give birth to and nurse their young. This is our last great whale haven.

How incongruous then would it be to allow a noisy, ugly and potentially deadly industry to set up business there? Right now the Australian Government is mapping out the future of our most pristine tropical marine environment and the plans leave the door open to unconstrained development by the oil and gas industry. The waters in the region are witnessing a rush for resources with petroleum leases already covering much of the area. The rapidly expanding offshore oil and gas industry is a major threat to whale and dolphin populations already threatened by entanglement and by-catch in fishing gear and by ship strikes.

Deafening noise pollution from seismic surveys, shipping and construction, habitat destruction, and oil and chemical spills can have a catastrophic and irreversible impact on this untouched environment and its wildlife. Oil and gas exploration itself is harmful to highly noise-sensitive whales and dolphins and can the area and its inhabitants survive an oil spill like the devastating Montara spill or worse?

We need as many Australians as possible to tell Environment Minister, Tony Burke, that the North West Bioregional plan must declare larger areas as highly protected marine reserves and put greater limits on oil and gas development. The Australian Government is rightly recognised as a world leader when it comes to protecting whales from harpoons but it’s about time it put as much effort into protecting whales in our waters as it does in opposing Japanese whaling.

We have one chance to get this right, or lose our last great whale haven forever. -- MC

P.S.:  You can follow our campaign for better protection forAustralia’s whales and dolphins in the north-west on the nascent IFAW Oceania Facebook page.

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