Hands off Australian humpback whales

Published 29 May 2007

South Pacific humpback whale populations will be seriously threatened and could face extinction if the ‘scientific’ whaling proposed by Japan goes ahead, according to Associate Professor Peter Harrison, director of the Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre.

Professor Harrison, who teaches in the School of Environmental Science and Management, said the International Whaling Commission meeting under way this week in Anchorage had once again put the spotlight on the need to protect humpback whale populations.

“More than 25,000 whales have been killed in so-called ‘scientific’ whaling programs since the moratorium was lifted in 1986, but in reality this is a commercial scale whaling operation masquerading as science,” Professor Harrison said.

“Japanese whalers are threatening to kill 50 of our humpback whales during this coming summer 2007-08.”

The whales they target could be among the humpbacks that travel along the east coast of Australia, or from the much smaller south Pacific populations.

Japan is proposing a deal to stop the scientific whaling in exchange for the right for coastal communities in Japan to kill whales, but that has already been rejected by anti-whaling countries at the meeting in Alaska.

Professor Harrison said prior to whaling, the humpback population that migrated along the east coast of Australia from the breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef to Antarctica for feeding in summer was probably 40,000 strong. That was reduced to about 100 by the 1960s due to unregulated commercial whaling.

“The population is starting to increase again and is now estimated to be about 9000 to 10,000 whales, which is only one quarter of the original population size. Killing humpback whales will reduce the rate at which this population can recover,” he said.

“Unfortunately, many of the south Pacific humpback whale populations have not recovered from whaling and some have only a few hundred whales still alive. If Japanese whalers kill 50 large breeding size humpbacks from these small populations, they would threaten their existence and potentially lead to local extinction.”

Professor Harrison said there were no scientifically valid reasons for killing any whales and there were very few credible research papers published as a result of the Japanese ‘scientific’ whaling program.

“Much of the information they claim they are gathering has been available from research done last century. The rest of the world uses various non-lethal alternatives for studying whales which can provide better and more extensive information about their populations and genetic make-up,” he said.

Southern Cross University’s Whale Research Centre is currently researching new cutting-edge DNA techniques to age humpback whales.

“Japan should not travel to the other side of the world and kill Australian humpback whales that are born and bred in the Great Barrier Reef and feed in Australian Territorial waters in Antarctica, within the IWC Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary set up to protect whales,” Professor Harrison said.

Photo: Associate Professor Peter Harrison.

Media contact: Brigid Veale Southern Cross University communications manager, 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748.