Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett and Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr today congratulated Australian researchers on the completion of the largest-ever aerial survey of whales off the Australian Antarctic coastline.

The team of five scientists aboard a fixed-wing aircraft surveyed 55,559 nautical miles of ocean and pack-ice off Australia’s Casey station for Antarctic minke whales over a two-month period from December 2009 to February 2010.

“This research is funded as part of the Government’s $32 million investment in non-lethal cetacean research. It is a landmark collaboration between the Australian Antarctic Division’s Australian Marine Mammal Centre and the CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship”, Mr Garrett said.

“The study will help scientists better understand the importance of pack-ice habitat to whales, and how a changing climate may lead to substantial changes in the nature and declines in the extent of sea ice.

“This research shows yet again that there are effective ways to collect a whole range of important whale data without the need to kill these amazing creatures.”

Senator Carr said: “The team has developed novel statistical methods to analyse the data it collected, together with data from ship surveys. This gives us a much more accurate estimate of minke numbers in Antarctic waters.”

“This is a good illustration of how objective, rigorous science is critical for better ocean management.”

CSIRO statistician Dr Natalie Kelly said there were fewer whales spotted this year than in the first year of the survey in 2008–09.

“In the first year of the study we saw 76 minke whales, considerably more than the 47 we spotted this year,” Dr Kelly said.

“The decrease in the number of whales sighted, despite a threefold increase in the survey area, could have something to do with thick pack-ice conditions preventing the whales coming deeper into the ice,” Dr Kelly said.

“This variability also highlights the huge changes that can occur in population surveys in just one year, so it’s important that this work is carried on over a long period of time,” she said.

Dr Kelly will present her research findings at the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee Meeting in Morocco next week.