Whale tagging tells previously unknown story

Minister Garrett and others in science lab
Research assistant James Marthick explaining to Minister Garrett how to measure whale DNA. (Photo: Glenn Jacobson)
Humpback whale with tagThe paths taken by 16 humpback whales, tagged near Eden

21 May 2009

Environment Minister Peter Garrett today visited the Australian Antarctic Division's Marine Mammal Centre to see first hand some of Australia's innovative non-lethal whale research.

For the first time Australian scientists have recorded the path of humpback whales from the Australian coast to their feeding grounds near the Antarctic continent.

Mr Garrett said that last October 16 whales were tagged near Eden in New South Wales and their route tracked for almost six months over an area covering around 4000 kilometres.

"Scientists have discovered that these whales from Australia's east coast disperse more widely than previously thought and outside the area traditionally identified for this population by the International Whaling Commission.

"This study, led by the Australian Marine Mammal Centre Director Dr Nick Gales, suggests the whales spend more time feeding in temperate waters than believed earlier – areas east of Flinders Island off northeast Tasmania, and west of Fiordland, New Zealand."

Dr Nick Gales said that the distinct migration route to the productive waters off New Zealand was not known before this study. "The activity of humpback whales within Bass Strait is much greater than thought previously and is the first study to show migration through Bass Strait and also down Tasmania's west coast.

"These tags will provide important information on the feeding distribution and behaviour of humpback whales in Antarctica and relationship between their food source, krill, and retracting sea ice during the summer melt," Dr Gales said.

Mr Garrett said that whale tagging was one of a number of ways the Australian Government was studying whale populations, their distribution and migration habits to maximise conservation outcomes of Southern Ocean whales.

"Last December I announced Australia was investing $32 million in non-lethal whale research and the development of conservation initiatives as part of a global collaboration with other nations.

"More than $14 million has been directed to the recently-established Southern Ocean Research Partnership which will become the world's largest, non-lethal cetacean research program. The focus of the Partnership is to directly address the conservation science of Southern Ocean whales.

"The Partnership is a major component of an Australian initiative to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) reform agenda.

"This partnership is making significant progress and at a workshop in March this year developed its objectives, research priorities and a procedural framework which will now be assessed by the IWC Scientific Committee. Almost all nations with an interest in whale conservation and management in the Southern Ocean are participants.

"Australia believes research partnerships are the way to bring IWC member countries together in a coordinated and cooperative way to deliver agreed, priority science to the Scientific Committee and the Commission," Mr Garrett said.

Planning is underway for ship-based and aerial-based whale research later this year. "We hope to see the use of technologies such as the whale tagging applied in the Southern Ocean as part of this work," Mr Garrett said.

Mr Garrett said an additional budget allocation of $36.9 million to the Australian Antarctic Division over the next two years ensures important Antarctic and Southern Ocean science can continue.

Ms Julie Collins, Member for Franklin, said: "The Division's work, here in Franklin, has important flow-on benefits for the Tasmanian economy.

"Up to $20 million of that extra investment will flow directly to Tasmania from the additional funding to the Australian Antarctic Division announced in the recent budget which is good news not only for my electorate but for the entire Tasmanian economy."