View all news

Leading whale researcher at SCU


26 May 2004
Australia’s humpback whale population still has a long way to go to reach the estimated pre-whaling numbers, according to one of the world’s leading whale researchers who will present a seminar at Southern Cross University tomorrow (May 27).

Dr Phil Clapham, an adjunct Professor at the SCU Whale Research Centre and a key member of the USA Scientific delegation to the International Whaling Commission Scientific meetings, will present a public seminar ‘Whales and Whaling in the 21st Century: can the whaling industry be trusted’ from 1pm to 2pm in U231 at the Lismore campus.

Dr Clapham said while the recovery of the Australian humpback whale population had been good, there was still a long way to go.

Figures collected through SCU’s Cape Byron Humpback Whale Project suggests there are now about 5000 humpback whales taking part in the annual migration to warmer waters to breed.

Dr Clapham said by looking at the catch records from the whaling industry it was possible to get an idea of previous population numbers. For example, in just two seasons in 1959/60 and 1960/61 the Soviet Union undertook a massive illegal whaling campaign killing 25,000 humpbacks south of Australia. Overall between 1948 and 1972 the Soviets illegally killed more than 100,000 whales, of various species, in the southern hemisphere.

“My guess would be that the population that used to migrate up the east coast of Australia was around 20,000 to 30,000. The recovery has a long way to go, but the indications are that it is a very resilient population,” Dr Clapham said.

He said while an international treaty banned commercial whaling in 1986, a number of loopholes had allowed Norway and Japan to continue killing whales. One of the provisions of the treaty allows for countries to kill whales for scientific research.

“Japan is doing that in the North Pacific and the Antarctic and there’s no limit on how many whales they can kill. The science that’s being done is really poor quality.

“Japan has been pushing the line that whales are big hungry predators that are eating all the fish and that’s very well received in some developing countries.”

Dr Clapham said it was extremely unlikely changes would be made to the treaty to close the loopholes.

“All we can do as scientists is continually point out the major flaws in the science.

“It’s really nice to see the whales coming back and what’s needed here is good monitoring and protection from the various potential threats.”

Dr Peter Harrison, the director of SCU’s Whale Research Centre, said three major ongoing projects were being carried out during the whale season.

The Cape Byron Humpback Whale Project, which started 10 years ago, is an intensive two-week survey of the northern migration. It is timed to start in the last week of June and first week of July.

In Hervey Bay, researchers Trish and Wally Franklin, both PhD candidates at SCU, are involved in a long-term study involving photographic identification of humpback whales, including mothers and calves. The study, which has been going on for the last 14 years, is carried out over 10 weeks from mid-August.

The final major whale project is being done by Daniel Burns, who is looking at the movement and association patterns of humpback whales during their southern migration. His study is done from Ballina in September and October.

Photo and interview opportunity:
Dr Clapham and Dr Harrison, along with other researchers, will be heading out to sea on Friday. They will be leaving the boat ramp at Fisheries Creek, Ballina, at 9.15am on Friday, May 28.

Media contact: Brigid Veale, SCU Media Liaison, 66593006 or m. 0439 680 748.