Australia is again taking an international lead on whale conservation by developing non-lethal research, including new satellite tagging techniques and ways of more accurately estimating humpback numbers in the southern hemisphere.

Announcing the conservation initiatives today on a whale watching vessel off Perth, Australian Environment and Heritage Minister Senator Ian Campbell said the progression of non-lethal research methods to learn more about our magnificent marine mammals was vital to their protection.

Other Australian Government whale conservation work included world-leading DNA research to enable a range of information — such as whale age, population biology and life history — to be obtained by a simple small tissue sample.

Senator Campbell said Australia was a world leader in the development of new whale tagging techniques involving small satellite-tracked tags that could be attached to whales to follow their movements at sea and get a more complete picture of their use of habitat. Preliminary work on humpback and blue whales around Australia had been extremely encouraging.

The surgically-sterilised tags are fired remotely from small boats and sit in the whale’s blubber layer causing very little irritation. These tags are far less invasive than some developed elsewhere that penetrate the underlying muscle.

“This technology is part of strategic research supporting the Australian Government’s recovery plans for Australia’s threatened whales,” Senator Campbell said.

“Experience has shown that it is not necessary to kill whales to learn about them and this whale tagging program is an important part of our non-lethal research program.”

Senator Campbell said another key element to protecting whales was knowing how many there were and Australia was bringing together scientists from throughout the world next year to develop the best possible estimate of humpback whale numbers in the southern hemisphere.

This special inter-sessional meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s scientific committee will be held in Hobart over a week in April, 2006, with up to 35 whale experts from countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, South America and South Africa.

“Humpbacks were devastated to the point of near extinction by commercial whaling between 1904 and 1972, when it is estimated more than 210,000 whales were killed,” Senator Campbell said.

“It is time now to take stock and calculate the extent to which the whaling ban has helped the population recover and Australia has a key role in this. We need to ensure the science is right as the answers will have clear implications for 'scientific’ whaling.

“The focus of this gathering of experts will be to develop the best methods to ensure the models and numbers are accurate.”

Senator Campbell said that research into a non-lethal method of determining the age of whales was also being pursued.

The Australian Government’s Antarctic Division is doing collaborative research with the University of Tasmania, the University of Southern Cross and many international partners on DNA structures called telomeres. Recent work has shown that telomeres got shorter over the life-span of many long-lived animals indicating they may be useful in estimating the age of whales.

“If this research is successful, we're hopeful of gaining age information of live whales, a better understanding of their population biology, life history and what affects them,” Senator Campbell said.

“Australia is absolutely committed to continuing non-lethal whale research and our campaign to highlight the flaws in 'scientific’ whaling will be vigorously pursued.”