Don't let whales slip through loophole

The sight of a humpback whale in the water can warm the hardest of human hearts and this Saturday, June 5, for World Environment Day you can learn about these incredible mammals.

To celebrate the beginning of this year’s humpback whale migration, Cape Byron Trust, in partnership with Whales Alive, will be hosting guest speakers from Southern Cross University adjacent to the Cape Byron lighthouse from 11am-12.30pm.

Dan Burns, a post-doctoral fellow at SCU researching humpback whale migration, will be speaking.

“We get a lot of whales coming up and down the coast here and Cape Byron is one of the best places in the world to see whales from the land,” Dan said. “We’re pretty lucky, considering 40 years ago there were just over 100 humpback whales.”

Humpbacks are one of the most acrobatic of whales, breaching, pectoral slapping and jumping out of the water much more frequently than other species.

The good news is that the humpback population is recovering but Dan said the Oceania population is still listed as endangered, with numbers still estimated to be less than half of what they were in the 1960s, when whales in Australian waters became a protected species.

In our winter months baleen whales migrate north from Antarctic waters, where they spend the summer eating, to the breeding grounds in the tropics.

“One of the really important areas of research is the variation in recovery between eastern Australia and the south Pacific,” Dan said. “We have not seen the same recovery in Fiji, where there used to be thousands. These days there are barely any there, and it’s the same for New Caledonia, Tonga and the Cook Islands. It’s important to see how connected the whales are; are they isolated populations or one big population? What we’re finding is that they are generally pretty separate with some small amount of interchange between them.”

Dan has recently returned from the 10th anniversary of the Southern Pacific Whale Research Consortium, which was held in Auckland.

“One of the big issues is that there is talk from Japan about extending their scientific whaling program to humpback whales,” Dan said. “We see that as a big problem. If the Japanese were to take 50 whales from the Antarctic, there’s no way to tell if they’re 50 whales from the south Pacific or 50 whales from eastern Australia.

“So far the Japanese haven’t taken humpbacks but they certainly take minke whales and there’s a general acceptance in the research community that it’s not really about science. They’re using a loophole in the International Whaling Commission where they set themselves whatever quota they like and they are using that loophole to continue whaling... It takes a long time for these whales to breed, particularly where numbers are low and if they were to hit breeding females that can have really strong and devastating effects.”

Dan will give a talk on humpback whale migration; there will also be talks on whale behaviour and biology.

Whales Alive and Cape Byron Trust volunteers will be on hand with binoculars and advice to assist people in locating whales.

Due to the limited amount of parking at the lighthouse, the Trust is encouraging people to walk up.

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