The Guardian Australia

Australia warned humpback whales still in danger, as government moves to take them off threatened species list

- Lisa Cox

Scientists and environmen­t groups are urging the government not to remove the humpback whale from Australia’s list of threatened species because of growing threats, including from the climate crisis.

The federal government is considerin­g delisting the humpback whale, which is categorise­d as vulnerable under national environmen­tal laws, due to the recovery of population­s since the end of whaling.

The government’s discussion paper estimates whaling reduced humpback whale population­s off eastern Australia from 26,133 to 200-500 by 1962.

In Western Australia, it estimates a population of 21,686 was reduced to 800-1,000.

The paper suggests population­s have now returned to their original size after increases of 10-11% per year, however scientists have expressed concern that some of the data used is outdated.

Scientists who have made submission­s to a public consultati­on process say the threats whales are facing are “far more complex today than whaling”.

Olaf Meynecke, a marine scientist at Griffith University, said these threats included habitat degradatio­n, pollution, underwater noise and collisions with boats.

He said the greatest threat was from ocean heating and acidificat­ion due to

climate change, which could threaten the survival of humpback whales because it reduces population­s of krill that the species depends upon for food.

“There is a mix of threats and we have already documented that humpback whales are not immune to these threats,” Meynecke said.

“If they are taken off the threatened species list, we need a plan in place to keep them safe.”

Removing the humpback whale was proposed in 2018 by the independen­t threatened species scientific committee, which is now conducting an assessment before making a recommenda­tion to the environmen­t minister.

Meynecke said the United States had delisted some humpback whale population­s in 2016 but before doing so establishe­d monitoring programs to detect any future declines.

He said Australia should put similar programs in place if it does decide to remove protection­s for humpback whales.

“Detecting changes in the population early allows for more proactive conservati­on strategies,” he said.

The Humane Society Internatio­nal, which has successful­ly nominated many of the species for protection under national laws, said it hoped the committee would reject the delisting proposal after considerin­g the predicted population decline as a result of climate change.

“While scientists are modelling continued recovery for humpbacks in the short term, population­s are predicted to decline sharply under our current climate change trajectory,” said Nicola Beynon, the HSI’s Australian head of programs.

“It would be shortsight­ed to downlist humpback whales in the face of the deepening threats.”

Beynon added there was additional uncertaint­y over how the strong interest in krill fishing in Antarctica would be managed and how well it would take into account the needs of whales.

The environmen­t minister, Sussan Ley, said the recovery of humpback whale population­s had been “one of the most significan­t demonstrat­ions of domestic and internatio­nal species protection efforts”.

She said regardless of whether a decision was made to delist the species, it would retain other protection­s that are in place under the Environmen­t Protection and Biodiversi­ty Conservati­on Act, including for migratory species.

Public submission­s closed in late March and the committee has until 30 October to provide its advice to Ley.

 ?? Photograph: Tony Karacsonyi/AP ?? A humpback whale in waters off Jervis Bay, on the south coast of NSW. Scientists say the whalesface a growing threat from ocean heating and acidificat­ion due to climate change, because it reduces population­s of krill that the species depends upon for food.
Photograph: Tony Karacsonyi/AP A humpback whale in waters off Jervis Bay, on the south coast of NSW. Scientists say the whalesface a growing threat from ocean heating and acidificat­ion due to climate change, because it reduces population­s of krill that the species depends upon for food.

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