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Humpback whales in the spotlight

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Brigid Veale SCU Communications Manager
Published
25 May 2006
As the annual humpback whale migration gets under way along Australia's east coast, fears are mounting over the future of whale conservation.

Southern Cross University's Whale Research Centre, which last year completed a comprehensive population estimate of the humpback population, has echoed concerns by the Federal Environment Minister and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) over plans for the resumption of commercial whaling.

The International Whaling Commission meets next month in the West Indies and will consider a return to commercial whaling.

Senator Ian Campbell, the Federal Minister for the Environment, said in an interview with the ABC that there were fears pro-whaling nations Japan and Norway would have the numbers to sway the vote in their favour on crucial issues.

SCU Whale Research Centre director Associate Professor Peter Harrison said any return to commercial-scale whaling would be devastating to the population.

He said he welcomed the release of a report by IFAW, titled 'Slaughtering Science: The Case against Japanese Scientific Whaling' which argues that 'scientific whaling' has become a vehicle for continuing catches at commercial levels. The report also supports the use of non-lethal research techniques.

"The humpback population that migrates up and down the East Coast of Australia is showing signs of ongoing increase, but it has not recovered from the impacts of whaling last century,″ Professor Harrison said.

″The population is estimated to have been up to 20,000-30,000 prior to whaling and fell to around 200-500 when whaling ceased in the 1960s."

Professor Harrison said the population was now growing at a rate of just over 10 per cent a year.

Last year, an estimated 7000 humpbacks travelled up the coast, heading to warmer waters off the Great Barrier Reef to breed. That number is expected to increase by about 700 this year.

A five-month land and sea survey run by the SCU Whale Research Centre last year has provided detailed information on the size of the humpback whale population and migration patterns.

Researchers, including Dave Paton, Dan Burns and Wally and Trish Franklin, completed the first detailed mark-recapture estimate for this population using photo-identification. The findings have since been presented to the International Whaling Commission meeting on southern hemisphere whale populations held in Hobart earlier this year.

The Whale Research Centre is continuing a number of research projects including the development of the first non-lethal method of determining the age of humpback whales

Professor Harrison, who is leading the project with Professor Peter Baverstock, said it would use cutting-edge DNA research techniques to determine the age of whales.

″This is globally significant research that will provide essential information for managing populations of endangered or vulnerable whale species. It will provide a model for determining the age structure of humpback whale populations in Australia and overseas using innovative non-lethal ageing techniques,″ he said.

The project has been funded through an Australian Research Council linkage grant.



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