Feature

Opinion: The federal government’s Marine Parks Review

An Opportunity to get it Right

Sperm Whale's feeding habitat is threatened

Critical habitat for Australia’s endemic dolphin, the snubfin, remains almost completely unprotected by marine sanctuaries, as does that of the Australian humpback dolphin. This is also the case for sperm whale feeding habitat off Kangaroo Island and in the Great Australian Bight

Credit: istock

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The Abbott Government had quite a shopping list of environmental election promises to get through when first coming into power: Repeal the carbon price. Check. Keep fossil fuel subsidiaries for big polluters. Check. Suspend marine reserves. Check. The list goes on, but the suspension of the national marine reserve network was considered a surprise by some, given it was the Howard Government that originally began the process of establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) in Australia. Nevertheless, the Coalition was resolute and the reserves review is now underway.

Meanwhile, Environment Minister Greg Hunt cited “Australians deep love of our marine and coastal environments and in particular the iconic whale and dolphin species” as one of the reasons for the establishment of the Coalition’s new Whale and Dolphin Protection Plan. This plan sees a small allocation of funds dedicated to a whale strandings action plan, a dolphin recovery plan and a national whale trail. None of which are likely to address the major threats to whales and dolphins in Australian waters today.

In light of this rather ambiguous attitude to the ocean and its charismatic creatures, we decided to take a look at how well the marine reserves around Australia really work for whales and dolphins and just what the review may mean for their protection and conservation in our waters.

Our analysis revealed some interesting findings. While there have been a number of significant gains for whales and dolphins, such as the first ever sanctuaries for calving and nursing humpback whales on the west coast and protection for feeding blue whales at Perth Canyon, we also found that nationally, whales and dolphins are not provided with as much protection as one would expect.

For example, critical habitat for Australia’s endemic dolphin, the snubfin, remains almost completely unprotected by marine sanctuaries, as does that of the Australian humpback dolphin. This is also the case for sperm whale feeding habitat off Kangaroo Island and in the Great Australian Bight. Endangered blue whales, known to forage in only three key locations in Australia, are also lacking high-level protection in these areas and only one of three critical southern right whale calving grounds has been given sanctuary protection.

The problem with not allocating sufficient protection for whale and dolphin habitat is that these animals are confined to very distinct areas that they rely on biologically to feed, breed, calve, rest and migrate. There is strong scientific evidence that a network of large, highly-protected MPAs which encompass these biologically important areas will provide the greatest benefits to whales, dolphins and other marine life.
Many whale populations are still struggling from the devastating impacts of commercial whaling in the last century and marine sanctuaries offer areas of refuge, giving populations a better chance of success.

As Greg Hunt says, Australians love whales and dolphins and the real danger with this review is it may lead to reduced protection within each of the reserves, which would be deeply damaging to whale and dolphin conservation. Instead the government has an excellent opportunity to address deficiencies and gaps in protection, making Australian waters a real safe haven for these iconic and much-loved whale and dolphin species.

Sharon Livermore – Marine Campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Full report “Seeking Sanctuary” available here: http://g.ifaw.org/1LxELus

Have your say on the Commonwealth marine reserves review until 31 March 2015:
http://www.ifaw.org/australia/get-involved/help-save-our-marine-life