Saturday 23 August 2014

More right whales means more care is needed

On Friday 15 August, at least two whales were struck by a ferry crossing Moreton Bay.
One small animal – reportedly seven metres long and possibly born earlier this season - was later found dead with severe propeller cuts across its head. It is not known whether it died as a result of the impact or the propeller injuries or both. There were reports of another larger whale swimming in the area, also with propeller injuries.
What makes this boat-strike incident even more dreadful is the type of whales involved. These were right whales.
Three separate species of right whale exist – the North Atlantic right whale, the North Pacific right whale and the southern right whale. As the name suggests, those that occur in Australian waters are southern rights.
Hunted almost to extinction for centuries across the globe, all right whales have been protected since 1935 although it has since emerged that they were still hunted illegally for decades, notably by the Soviet whaling fleet.
Recovery has been slow compared to some species such as the humpback, but the southern right whale population appears to be steadily increasing.
Despite whaling being one of the Australia’s first and most important primary industries from the beginning of European settlement, especially in Tasmania, there are few historical records of right whales being hunted, or even sighted, in Queensland waters. However, they are now regularly reported in Moreton Bay and Hervey Bay. The sightings are few – only one or two pods annually during the past ten years or so – but it has raised the question as to whether these whales are returning to their previous range, or moving into new areas.
Either way, what we are witnessing is a trend and it is likely that southern rights will appear in these waters more often, rather than less.
This is something of a mixed blessing. It is heartening to see the species recover, but worrying that they are entering waterways where boat traffic, large and small, is substantial and increasing.
Southern rights move inshore to breed and will tend to settle into a general area for weeks at a time if undisturbed.  Mothers with newborn calves will spend a lot of time resting at or just below the surface. With broad, black bodies and no dorsal fin, they can be difficult to see unless a sharp lookout is kept. When they are at rest their blows can be infrequent and barely visible.
The AWCS has recommended that the Queensland Government should take immediate action to announce whenever southern right whales are reported in an area. Bearing in mind that striking a whale at speed can also have serious consequences for vessels and their occupants, the Government should make use of Marine Information Bulletins from Maritime Safety Queensland, radio broadcasts by Volunteer Marine Rescue Queensland and general public media releases to make people aware of the situation.
Because of the level of public and media interest that can be generated by the presence of a rarely seen, easily accessible whale close to shore, the Environment Minister should also declare “special management marine mammal” status for the whales, which restricts all approaches to 500 metres. They must be off limits to everyone, including commercial whale watch operators.
This is important not only to prevent boat-strike incidents but also to minimise stress and disturbance while they breed and nurse their young.
From there on, the Government needs to make use of its various resources, including vessels and aircraft operated by a number of departments, to monitor the movements of the whale/s until they return to the open ocean.
With human population increasing along the seaboard and more marinas and ports planned for Moreton Bay and elsewhere along our coastline, boat and ship traffic is only going to increase.
A combination of awareness, vigilance and care on the part of vessel operators is the only way that this sort of incident can be prevented in the future.


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