New data on minke whale distribution in pack ice in the Southern Ocean and new techniques developed by Australian scientists for researching whale abundance further advance Australia’s global leadership in non-lethal whale research, Environment Minister Peter Garrett said today.

Mr Garrett outlined the research conducted by scientists at the Australian Marine Mammal Centre located at the Australian Antarctic Division, and scientists from CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences ahead of the first meeting of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership in Sydney.

“The Southern Ocean Research Partnership represents the biggest international research effort on Southern Ocean whales yet undertaken,” Mr Garrett said

“With scientists and experts from around the world gathering in Sydney today for the first time to discuss the Partnership, this Australian study will help inform the future of whale science and offers a new perspective on the numbers and distribution of minkes in and around the Antarctic sea-ice.

“The data collected and the research techniques involved will make a major contribution to global understanding of whales and will be presented at the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission in June as a further example of the innovative, non-lethal research that Australia is championing as the way forward for whale research in the future,” he said.

CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences Research Fellow Dr Natalie Kelly, who ran the survey operations in Antarctica, said the aerial survey program was conducted using CASA 212-400 aircraft with one flight leader and four observers onboard to count whales from the air.

“This data is then combined with information from high-definition video cameras, a high-resolution digital stills camera and an infrared camera installed in the base of the aircraft to detect whales hidden from view by the ice, helping provide a really comprehensive analysis of minke whales in the pack ice and their use of various pack-ice habitats.”

The survey area was based on a 600 nautical mile flying range from a skiway near Casey station and the survey route was systematically designed to capture a wide range of sea ice concentrations.

“Flying was conducted over a three week period, with some down time due to bad weather. The survey officially finished in the evening of 31 December, with a total of 4448 nautical miles flown. Over 41 hours of data were collected over nearly 3000 nautical miles of the survey route with a number of areas repeated,” said Dr Kelly.

Dr Nick Gales, Leader of the Australian Marine Mammal Centre said ship-based surveys in the Southern Ocean over the past two decades had found increasing evidence of a possible decline in minke whale abundance.

"The IWC has been counting whales in the Southern Ocean since 1978 and evidence of a decline was obviously of increasing concern. However it is difficult to know whether the decline is genuine or if it is due to the limitations of the ship-based survey technique.

“Changes in distribution of sea ice each year, and changes in the number of minke whales present within the ice zone, particularly in the pack ice where the survey ships cannot penetrate, could be responsible for some of the changes in the number of whales seen in the open water.

“This new survey technique employing the latest technology will help us overcome those barriers. The results will be presented, along with the latest ship-based estimates of minke whale abundance at this year’s IWC meeting in Madeira in June.

“We are currently working on transcribing audio and video files from the flights and so far we're delighted with how the video and photographic equipment functioned to compile this novel data,” Dr Gales said.