Australia warned humpback whales still in danger, as government moves to take them off threatened species list


Scientists and environment groups are urging the government not to remove the humpback whale from Australia’s list of threatened species because of growing threats, including from the climate crisis.

The federal government is considering delisting the humpback whale, which is categorised as vulnerable under national environmental laws, due to the recovery of populations since the end of whaling.

The government’s discussion paper estimates whaling reduced humpback whale populations off eastern Australia from 26,133 to 200-500 by 1962.

In Western Australia, it estimates a population of 21,686 was reduced to 800-1,000.

The paper suggests populations have now returned to their original size after increases of 10-11% per year, however scientists have expressed concern that some of the data used is outdated.

Scientists who have made submissions to a public consultation process say the threats whales are facing are “far more complex today than whaling”.

Olaf Meynecke, a marine scientist at Griffith University, said these threats included habitat degradation, pollution, underwater noise and collisions with boats.

He said the greatest threat was from ocean heating and acidification due to climate change, which could threaten the survival of humpback whales because it reduces populations of krill that the species depends upon for food.

“There is a mix of threats and we have already documented that humpback whales are not immune to these threats,” Meynecke said.

“If they are taken off the threatened species list, we need a plan in place to keep them safe.”

Removing the humpback whale was proposed in 2018 by the independent threatened species scientific committee, which is now conducting an assessment before making a recommendation to the environment minister.

Meynecke said the United States had delisted some humpback whale populations in 2016 but before doing so established monitoring programs to detect any future declines.

He said Australia should put similar programs in place if it does decide to remove protections for humpback whales.

“Detecting changes in the population early allows for more proactive conservation strategies,” he said.

The Humane Society International, which has successfully nominated many of the species for protection under national laws, said it hoped the committee would reject the delisting proposal after considering the predicted population decline as a result of climate change.

“While scientists are modelling continued recovery for humpbacks in the short term, populations are predicted to decline sharply under our current climate change trajectory,” said Nicola Beynon, the HSI’s Australian head of programs.

“It would be shortsighted to downlist humpback whales in the face of the deepening threats.”

Beynon added there was additional uncertainty over how the strong interest in krill fishing in Antarctica would be managed and how well it would take into account the needs of whales.

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, said the recovery of humpback whale populations had been “one of the most significant demonstrations of domestic and international species protection efforts”.

She said regardless of whether a decision was made to delist the species, it would retain other protections that are in place under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, including for migratory species.

Public submissions closed in late March and the committee has until 30 October to provide its advice to Ley.



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