Humpbacks go from bust to boom, yet experts fear whale’s recovery under threat

Published 14 April 2021
Humpback whale breaching Female humpback named Wedgewood breaching (credit Trish Franklin).

A proposal to remove the humpback from Australia’s threatened species list has come too soon in the iconic whale’s recovery, say Southern Cross University researchers.

Dr Wally Franklin and Dr Trish Franklin, founders of The Oceania Project who studied Hervey Bay’s humpback whale population for 30 years, have joined forces with other leading whale and marine scientists to submit a joint statement to the federal government outlining concerns for the future of the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) if it is delisted as a threatened species.

“Conservation efforts around the globe have been significant in the successful recovery of humpback whales. The protection level gained through its listing on the threatened species list has further contributed to the successful recovery of humpback whales in Australian waters,” said Dr Wally Franklin.

“While we can celebrate this resurgence, we need to proceed with caution. It requires ongoing monitoring to ensure the recovery of humpback whales continues.” 

Each year between May and November, the majestic mammals complete a 10,000-kilometre migration, from their feeding grounds in Antarctica heading north along Australia’s coastline to warmer waters to mate, breed and give birth before returning south again.

Estimates put the current population of eastern Australian humpbacks at 40,000. Yet half a century ago its numbers were decimated as commercial whaling and the market for whale products was bolstered by modern shipping. By the early 1960s, humpback whales, particularly in the Pacific, were reduced from 60,000 to just 605.

Of the eastern Australian group, just a paltry 150 individuals remained.

Between 1909 and 1970 a staggering two million whales were removed in southern hemisphere waters, including around Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Along with humpback whales, species included Blue whales, Bryde's (pronounced "broodus") whales, Sei (pronounced "say") whales and fin whales.

“Whaling ceased in 1978 in Australia allowing humpback whales to slowly come back from the brink of extinction,” Dr Wally Franklin said.

“The threat of whaling has not existed for the past 43 years in Australia but new threats, far more complex than those of the past, have emerged and they are impacting on humpback whales.”

The scientists identified underwater noise, pollution, vessel strikes, fisheries interactions, marine debris, habitat degradation, tourism pressure and climate change which, they claim, in combination have the potential to cause population decline of humpback whales in Australia.

The scientists are also concerned any delisting will be used by some nations to justify resumption of the killing of humpback whales.

Should the federal government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment proceed with the delisting on the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act’s threatened species list, the group recommends it follow the USA´s example: humpback whales should remain listed for another five years so a monitoring plan can be developed. 

“If delisting was to happen, we strongly recommend a monitoring plan that tracks population changes, threats and species abundance,” said Dr Franklin.

While submissions have officially closed, the Franklins encourage people to contact their local federal MP with concerns.

Media contact: Sharlene King, media officer at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or scumedia@scu.edu.au