In March 2009 a Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP) was established to enhance cetacean conservation and the delivery of non-lethal whale research to the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
The partners — including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, France, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States — aim to maximise conservation results through research into the status, health, dynamics and environmental linkages of whale populations and the threats they face. The main focus of the partnership is the large whale species managed by the IWC, including the humpback, blue, fin, Antarctic minke, sei, southern right and sperm whales. Killer whales will also be considered as an important component of the Southern Ocean ecosystem.
Research will be conducted under two main themes:
- post-exploitation whale population structure, health and status; and
- changing atmosphere and oceans: Southern Ocean whales and their ecosystems.
Research conducted under the first theme will focus on improving understanding of how whale populations have recovered since the cessation of commercial whaling. It will include data collection for existing long-term population studies on some whale species (such as humpback and southern right) and the collection of new data that addresses important unknowns, such as how endangered fin whales have responded to protection.
Under the second theme research will look at, for example, the importance of sea ice habitat for whales, how the environment affects the movement of whales in the Southern Ocean, the response of whale populations to climate processes in contrasting oceanic regions (such as the Antarctic Peninsula and the southwest Atlantic Ocean), and the interaction of baleen whales with their feeding ground environment.
The SORP research plan is expected to develop over the course of the collaboration, particularly in response to IWC requirements.
Australia-New Zealand whale study
The first research project to be conducted under the banner of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership will be a six-week expedition in Antarctic waters in February-March 2010, on board New Zealand’s ice-strengthened ship RV Tangaroa. The Australia-New Zealand collaboration will involve the collection of data on the movement of whales, population genetics and their interaction with the sea ice ecosystem, using non-lethal research techniques such as biopsy sampling, satellite tracking and acoustic surveys. The data will contribute to an understanding of the population structure, abundance, trends, distribution and ecological role of whales in the Southern Ocean.
Australian Marine Mammal Centre, AAD