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The big comeback: it’s time to declare victory for Australian humpback whale conservation

Humpback whale populations have leapt on both Australia’s east and west coasts. Ari S. Friedlaender (under NMFS permit), Author provided

The big comeback: it’s time to declare victory for Australian humpback whale conservation

When it comes to conservation, good news is pretty thin on the ground – and the ocean, for that matter. We have grown much more used to hearing about marine species that face extinction, decline or negative impacts than about those that are thriving. But if we are to avoid getting demoralised, conservation biology needs victories to celebrate.

So here’s one: the remarkable recovery of humpback whales that breed in Australian waters. Our review of the available data, published today in Marine Policy, suggests that humpback whale populations in Australian waters have recovered to the extent that we should consider downlisting them from the official list of threatened species.

The humpback whale should be a cause for optimism and hope. It’s an important counterbalance to the seemingly relentless communication of marine conservation problems with little in the way of good news. We hope this kind of optimism will convince politicians and the public that conservation problems can indeed be solved, and to stay dedicated to making that happen.

Turning the tide

Australia has one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. But despite this, the past decade has seen rare examples of animals that are rebounding and thriving.

Humpback whales are one such example. They are listed as “vulnerable” on Australia’s official list of threatened species, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

But our review, led by Michelle Bejder of BMT Oceanica and based on the best available scientific data, suggests that humpback whales no longer need to be on the EPBC Act’s Threatened Species list. Both the east and west Australian populations of humpback whales have recovered substantially from the damage done in the commercial whaling era (roughly from 1912 to 1972).

As of 2012, Australia’s east coast humpback population was at 63% of the pre-whaling-era level. The west coast population had bounced back to 90%. Australian humpback whale populations are increasing at remarkable rates: 9% a year for the west coast population and 10% a year for the east coast – the fastest documented increases worldwide.

A recent global assessment of humpback whales suggested that nine populations from around the world (including the east and west Australian populations) are no longer at risk of extinction. This is to be expected when exploitation through commercial whaling is replaced with conservation legislation (both in Australia and worldwide). Though we don’t quite fully understand the biological forces driving this extraordinary population increase, it’s fair to say that the removal of the dominant negative human pressure has been a huge factor.

On the rise: humpback whale populations are rebounding at a startling rate. Ari S. Friedlaender (under NMFS permit), Author provided

We believe that conservation biologists have a responsibility to protect species that are in peril by providing a sound, scientific basis for effective management. It therefore follows that we also have a responsibility to present information on recovering populations. The listing of threatened species under the EPBC Act is a dynamic process that is periodically assessed to determine the most appropriate management actions – so if species no longer needs to be on the list we should say so.

The future challenge will be to protect a marine environment that contains growing humpback whale populations and to develop alternative approaches to ecological sustainability. The history of environmental protection is based on saving depleted species, with very little guidance on how to manage recovering and recovered ones.

If humpback whales are downlisted from the threatened species list, the EPBC Act would still protect them from significant impacts because migratory species are deemed under the Act to be nationally significant. Beyond Australia, the International Whaling Commission manages the global moratorium on commercial whaling, which is essential for the humpback whales’ recovery to continue.

Management efforts must now balance the need to ensure humpback whale growth and recovery within a marine environment that is also expanding with industrial and exploration activities. There will be increases in interactions with ocean users, including acoustic disturbance from noise, collisions with vessels, entanglements in fishing gear, habitat destruction from coastal development, and interactions with the whale-watching industry. It will be vital to gain public support to help maintain the growth and recovery of Australian humpback whales and prevent future population declines.

Ocean optimism

The recovered humpback whale population could bring a positive shift in scientific research throughout Australia. If Australian humpback whales are removed from the list of threatened species, one of the most beneficial consequences could be the reprioritisation of research and funding to support other species that are at a greater risk.

Hopefully, other animal species such as the threatened blue whale, the understudied Australian snubfin and Australian humpback dolphins might get the same chance of scientific scrutiny that has been afforded to humpback whales.

For the first time in more than a generation, Australia’s iconic humpback whales have become a symbol of both hope and optimism for marine conservation, providing a unique opportunity to celebrate successful scientific and management actions that protect marine species. Optimism in conservation biology (which even has its own social media hashtag, #OceanOptimism) is essential to encourage politicians and the public to solve conservation problems.

Around the world, many marine mammal populations remain in peril, and conservation biologists should not detract from these cases. But we should still highlight the successes, as they provide hope that ongoing conservation actions can prevail. Ultimately, inspirational examples such as humpback whales can motivate people to use ocean resources wisely and to take sustainable and effective actions to safeguard marine wildlife for the future.

This article was written with the assistance of Michelle Bejder, a marine science consultant with BMT Oceanica and lead author of the Marine Policy review.

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