Biodiversity

Species Profile and Threats Database


For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
 
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Listed as Endangered as Eubalaena australis
Cetacean as Eubalaena australis
Listed migratory - Bonn as Eubalaena australis
Recovery Plan Decision Recovery Plan required, this species had a recovery plan in force at the time the legislation provided for the Minister to decide whether or not to have a recovery plan (19/2/2007).
 
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans Conservation Management Plan for the Southern Right Whale (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2013e) [Recovery Plan] as Eubalaena australis.
 
Other EPBC Act Plans Threat abatement plan for the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate marine life (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), 2009t) [Threat Abatement Plan].
 
Policy Statements and Guidelines Marine bioregional plan for the Temperate East Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012aa) [Admin Guideline].
 
Marine bioregional plan for the South-west Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012z) [Admin Guideline].
 
Industry Guidelines on the Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales (Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEW), 2007h) [Admin Guideline].
 
Information Sheets Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005e) [Information Sheet].
 
Information Sheet - Harmful marine Debris (Environment Australia, 2003ac) [Information Sheet].
 
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
Declaration under s178, s181, and s183 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of threatened species, List of threatened ecological communities and List of threatening processes (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000) [Legislative Instrument] as Eubalaena australis.
 
List of Migratory Species (13/07/2000) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000b) [Legislative Instrument] as Balaena glacialis australis.
 
State Government
    Documents and Websites
NSW:Southern Right Whale - profile (NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW DECCW), 2005di) [Internet].
NSW:Southern Right Whale (NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW DECCW), 2008a) [Internet].
TAS:Southern Right Whale (Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (TAS DIPWE), 2009i) [Internet].
TAS:Eubalaena australis (Southern Right Whale): Species Management Profile for Tasmania's Threatened Species Link (Threatened Species Section (TSS), 2014tm) [State Action Plan].
VIC:Flora and Fauna Guarantee Action Statement 94 - Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis (Seebeck, J., 2004) [State Action Plan].
State Listing Status
NSW: Listed as Endangered (Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (New South Wales): December 2013 list) as Eubalaena australis
SA: Listed as Vulnerable (National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (South Australia): June 2011 list) as Eubalaena australis
TAS: Listed as Endangered (Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 (Tasmania): September 2012 list) as Eubalaena australis
VIC: Listed as Threatened (Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (Victoria): February 2014 list) as Eubalaena australis
WA: Listed as Vulnerable (Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (Western Australia): September 2013 list) as Eubalaena australis
Non-statutory Listing Status
IUCN: Listed as Least Concern (Global Status: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: 2013.1 list)
VIC: Listed as Critically Endangered (Advisory List of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna in Victoria: 2013 list)
Scientific name Eubalaena australis [40]
Family Balaenidae:Cetacea:Mammalia:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (Desmoulins, 1822)
Infraspecies author  
Reference  
Other names Balaena glacialis australis [75529]
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images
http://www.abc.net.au/storm/exposure/twenty2.htm

Initially classified as Balaena australis (Desmoulins 1822), the genus Eubalaena was described by Gray in 1864 and the Southern Right Whale was reclassified as Eubalaena australis (Bannister et al. 1996). The original species name is not currently, nor has it been recently used.


The taxonomic classification for Southern Right Whales is universally accepted. Based on genetic evidence the Eubalaena genus is classified as three separate species: the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis), the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica), and the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis), with no recognised subspecies (Rosenbaum et al. 2000).

Southern Right Whales are large baleen whales with a less streamlined shape than balaenopterids like Humpback Whales. They grow to a maximum length of 17.5 m and weight of 80 t, with mature females often slightly larger than males (Bannister et al. 1996). The mean length of sexually mature females off the South African coast was calculated as 13.85 m (Best & Ruther 1992) and off Argentina as 13.66 m (Whitehead & Payne 1981). Mature females in Soviet catches from the Southern Ocean averaged 14.34 m (Tormosov et al. 1998). Southern Right Whales are about 5.5 m long and 1000-1500 kg at birth and physical maturity is reached at a length of 16 m (Bannister et al. 1996). Age at physical maturity is unknown (Bannister et al. 1996).

The vast majority of Southern Right Whales are uniformly black in colour, often with a white ventral blaze of varying size and shape centred on the umbilicus. About 2.8% of adults are mottled dark brown to grey, having been white with varying degrees of black marking at birth (Bannister 1990). A small number of adults (1.4-3.4%) have white dorsal blazing (Bannister 1990). The pectoral fins are short and paddle like, the flukes are uniform in colour with smooth trailing edges, and there is no dorsal fin.

A distinctive feature is the presence of whitish or yellowish callosities on the rostrum, chin and lower jaw. These are formed as roughened patches of keratinised skin and colonized by cyamids (small crustaceans known as `whale lice') (Cummings 1985). Callosity patterns are present at birth and persist with minor variation through life, such that individual Southern Right Whales can be identified by the number and configuration of callosities (Payne et al. 1983). They provide the basis for studies relying on an ability to recognise individuals from natural markings over long time frames (Best 1990b; Burnell & Bryden 1997; Payne 1986).

The head of Southern Right Whales is large compared to body size and the jaw line strongly arched (Jefferson et al. 1993). Baleen plates number from 205-270 and the baleen is usually, dark, very fine, and long (maximum 2.2 m) in comparison to other species (Cummings 1985). Blubber thickness has been recorded from Soviet catch data as 14-17cm for a 10 m whale and 23-24 cm for a 15 m whale (Tormosov et al. 1998).

Southern Right Whales are generally thought to be solitary during migration, or accompanied by a dependent calf or occasionally a yearling offspring. They form large groups in breeding areas, where unaccompanied whales are frequently engaged in mating and socialising behaviours (Burnell 1999; Payne 1986; Thomas 1987). Female-calf pairs generally avoid socialising, despite spending extended periods on the calving grounds with other whales (Cassini and Vila 1990). A South African study has shown that Southern Right Whales are more often in groups of one or more in breeding grounds (76.7% of whales) than in feeding areas (15.4% of whales) (Best et al. 2003). In addition they were more likely to be socially active in breeding areas, with 14-45% of whales socially active (depending on the season) compared with only 0.5% (excluding cow-calf pairs) in feeding areas (Best et al. 2003).

Southern Right Whales are seasonally present on the Australian coast between about May and November. The distribution and recognised aggregation areas of Southern Right Wales in Australian waters are illustrated in Figure 1.

Southern Right Whales have been recorded in the coastal waters of all Australian states with the exception of the Northern Territory (Bannister et al. 1996). Principally found around the southern coastline off southern Western Australia and far west South Australia, Southern Right Whales occur anywhere between Sydney and Perth, including off Tasmania (Bannister 1979-2005; Bannister 1990; Burnell & McKenna 1996; Burnell & Bryden 1997; Kemper et al. 1997; Ling & Needham 1985-91; Warneke 1989). Evidence suggests that fewer than 10% of reproductively mature females calving on the coast in any one year use the coast off Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and eastern South Australia (Burnell & McKenna 1996; Kemper et al. 1997). Sightings in more northern waters are relatively rare, but there have been records from Exmouth (22°23'S, 114°07'E) on the west coast (Bannister 2001) and Moreton Bay (27°10'S, 153°20'E) (Chilvers, 2000), Stradbroke Island (27°26'S, 153°32'E) (Noad, 2000) and Hervey Bay (25°S, 153°E) on the east coast.

Within their broader geographic range Southern Right Whales in Australia concentrate in certain areas to breed. Major calving areas are located in Western Australia at Doubtful Island Bay (34°10'S, 119°40'E), east of Israelite Bay (33°15'S, 124°10'E); and in South Australia at Head of Bight (31°30'S, 131°10'E) (Bannister 1979-2005; Burnell 1999). Smaller numbers of calving females are regularly seen in Victoria at Warrnambool (38°23'S, 142°29'E); South Australia at Encounter Bay (35°34'S, 138°37'E) and Fowlers Bay (31°59'S, 132°34'E); and Western Australia at Twilight Cove (32°17'S, 126°05'E), Flinders Bay (34°20'S, 115°15'E), Albany/Cape Riche area (35°2'S 118°E), Yokinup Bay/Cape Arid area (33°25'S 123°E) (Bannister 1979-2005; Burnell & McKenna 1996; Kemper et al. 1994; Ling & Needham 1985-91). Areas used intermittently include a number of locations on the Western Australian coast west of Israelite Bay between more regular calving grounds, Sleaford Bay (South Australia), Port Fairy and Portland (Victoria), Eden (NSW), and Maria Island and Bruny Island (Tasmania) (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005).

The distribution of Southern Right Whales in Australian waters other than near to the coast is unknown.

Maps of the Australian distribution of the Southern Right Whale are contained in the Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005-2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005).

Southern Right Whales are distributed in the southern hemisphere generally between 20°S and 60°S, although animals occur off the coast of Brazil at 8°S (IWC 2001) and sightings have been recorded south of 60°S (Bannister et al. 1999). Coastal breeding areas are utilised during the austral winter and spring (Bannister 1990; Best 1990a; Payne et al. 1990), but little is known of the species' offshore distribution (Bannister et al. 1997).

The major calving grounds are located in near-shore waters off the southern coasts of Australia and South Africa, and the Argentine coast of South America, principally between 20°S and 45°S (IWC 2001). Smaller numbers of whales are found around oceanic islands including the New Zealand sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands and around Tristan da Cuhna and Gough Island in the South Atlantic (IWC 2001).

Distribution in presumed southern hemisphere feeding grounds occurs across a broad latitudinal range between about 32°S and 65°S, with the main feeding areas thought to occur between 40°S and 55°S (Bannister et al. 1999; Bannister et al. 1997; Best et al. 2002; Goodall & Galeazzi 1986; Ohsumi and Kasamatsu 1986; Tormosov et al. 1998). Feeding areas have been inferred mostly from records of historic whaling grounds (Townsend 1935). However some data has been gathered from contemporary sightings (Bannister et al. 1999; Bannister et al. 1997; Goodall & Galeazzi 1986; Ohsumi & Kasamatsu 1986), Soviet whaling during 1950-1970 (Tormosov et al. 1998), and a single satellite telemetry study off South Africa (Best et al. 2002). The location of feeding grounds is likely to be highly dependent on oceanic and ecosystem processes affecting prey distribution and abundance as has been observed for congeners in the northern hemisphere (Baumgartner & Mate 2003).

Distribution and movements during migration are unknown, although an anticlockwise circular migration pattern south of the Australian continent has been proposed from the location and timing of whaling effort (Hart et al. 1842) and supported by contemporary movement patterns (Burnell 2001).


The populations wintering off the coasts of Argentina, South Africa and Australia are thought to comprise the majority of the 7000 strong global population and the recovery rate is estimated to be approximately 7% (IWC 2001).

The Southern Right Whale is experiencing sound recovery rates in line with the theorised maximum biological rate of increase across a wide proportion of its known range (IWC 2001). The security of the species is not yet assured as numbers remain at likely less than 10% of pre-exploitation abundance (IWC 2001). In addition, fitness in severely and rapidly depleted populations is reduced due to a loss of genetic diversity, making the species more vulnerable for example to a stochastic (random) disease event (IWC 2001).

Activities and processes that impact on Southern Right Whales continue across the species' range. These include fisheries practices resulting in injury or mortality, shipping collisions, physical damage from acoustic events, directed take, habitat modification through global climate change, infrastructure, pollution or acoustic interference, and disturbance to normal activity patterns (Department of the Environment and Heritage 2005; Bannister et al. 1996; Best et al. 2001b; IWC 2001; Laist et al. 2001). Northern hemisphere populations are likely to be impacted by similar threats (Greene & Pershing, 2004; Knowlton and Kraus, 2001; Nowacek et al. 2004). The extent to which any of these impacts may threaten global species conservation has not been rigorously assessed, however, the effect of human-related mortality is expected to be low (IWC 2001).


In 1997 the International Whaling Commission (2001) estimated that 17%, or around 1200, of the global Southern Right Whale population occurred in Australia (based on a global abundance of 7000). The most recent information for the Australian population provides an estimate of approximately 1,500 (Bannister 2005). However with the population's increase rate estimated at 7% (IWC, 2001), the global population could now be expected to be around 12,000 in 2005 and the Australian population around 2,100.

Stock differentiation analyses are incomplete, but at least four biologically distinct populations exist, wintering off the coasts of Australia, South Africa, Argentina and sub-Antarctic New Zealand (IWC 2001). Australian stocks may be further differentiated into a western and eastern stock (Carroll et al. 2011). The breeding areas of these four major populations are geographically separate. A low level of gene flow between populations is evidenced by both mitochondrial DNA analysis and photo-identification resights (Environment Australia 2002; Environment Australia 2004; Best et al. 1993; Patenaude & Harcourt 2002). These data indicate inter-mixing of the Australian population with the sub-Antarctic New Zealand population through the occasional exchange of breeding areas (Environment Australia 2002; Environment Australia 2004). The degree of geographic overlap of feeding areas and any inter-mixing of the Australian populations with others there is unknown.

The Australian Southern Right Whale population occurs within Australia's jurisdiction for only part of the year. Whales are seasonally present in coastal waters between about May and November, but during the summer months the population is thought to be out of Australian jurisdiction in high seas areas of the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic Southern Ocean. At least some offshore summer distribution may fall within Australian waters, particularly those south of Tasmania or off the Southern Ocean oceanic islands (Macquarie Island, Heard and MacDonald Islands), and feeding may also occur in waters off Australian Antarctic Territory.

Global threats and threats arising outside Australian jurisdiction have the potential to affect the Australian population of Southern Right Whales due to the highly mobile, migratory nature of Southern Right Whales and their utilisation of near-shore and oceanic waters over a broad geographic range. The Australian population may be affected by, for example, marine debris and pollution originating outside Australia's jurisdiction, or by climate change that operates on a global scale across ecosystems. The recovery rate of Australian Southern Right Whales indicates that the detectable impact of any threats is currently low, but any emerging global threat has the potential to affect the Australian population.

 

The species distribution and abundance in its winter breeding habitat has been well surveyed. It is likely that its current known range in Australian coastal waters is reflective of its actual range, although surveys do not cover the whole coast. Its actual distribution in other than near shore waters is not known. No dedicated surveys have been conducted in other components of habitat and actual distribution in these areas remains unknown.

Southern Right Whales are not known to cross breed with any other species. Their reproductive cycle is seasonally asynchronous (occurs at different times) with the most closely related species - the North Atlantic and North Pacific Right Whales - and their geographic distribution is not contiguous (nearby).

Reserves: The Australian Southern Right Whale population does not occur in its entirety within any reserve system.

Within Australian jurisdiction, the Great Australian Bight Marine Park (GAMBP) at the Head of the Bight in South Australia, is the single marine protected area within which a defined calving ground occurs. The aims and management prescriptions of the GABMP are specifically related to Southern Right Whale protection (Department of Environment and Heritage, SA 1998; Australian Government Department of Environment and Heritage 1999). There is a provision for seasonal closure of the area to vessels to protect calving habitat, and statements relating to measuring the success of management prescriptions with regard to Southern Right Whales (Department of Environment and Heritage, SA 1998; Australian Government Department of Environment and Heritage 1999).

There is a seasonal closure to vessels in the immediate vicinity of the right whale calving area at Warrnambool, Victoria, however this is not within an Marine Park Authority context. Individuals of the species may sporadically occur within any marine protected area within their Australian range.

There is very little information on Southern Right Whale migratory and feeding habitat, and calving areas have been poorly studied. Current Southern Right Whale populations represent remnant populations, and no information is available on the influence of historic exploitation in the desertion of habitat.

Differential use of habitat by calving and non-calving whales has been noted off Australia (Burnell & Bryden 1997), South Africa (Best 1981) and Argentina (Payne 1986), perhaps implying habitat selection within calving grounds. An early study indicated that females with calves in Argentine breeding grounds preferred shallow water (Payne 1986). A more recent study for the South African population based on aerial survey data found that coastal distribution there was related to habitat features (depth and substrate type), and environmental conditions (shelter from prevailing weather) (Elwen & Best 2004a; Elwen & Best 2004b).

Feeding ground habitat, based on knowledge of Northern Right Whales, is likely to be related to oceanographic and bathymetric (depth measurement) parameters and ecological processes affecting prey concentration (Baumgartner et al. 2003a).


Habitat requirements of Southern Right Whales have not been well studied overall. Early observations on calving grounds indicated a preference for water depth of less than 5 m (Payne 1986) and differential habitat use by calving females and unaccompanied whales has been documented by Best (1990a), Burnell (1999) and Payne (1986). Broad scale post-exploitation Southern Right Whale distribution on the South African coast was found to be associated with protected water, shallow sloping bathymetry, and a sedimentary seabed (Elwen & Best 2004a). Females with calves occurred in shallower waters with a sandy bottom and closer to shore than whales without calves, presumably conditions preferred for energy conservation and calf rearing (Elwen & Best 2004a; Elwen & Best 2004b). A multi-scale study of Australian coastal habitat preference is underway utilising existing and new distribution and movement datasets and historic information (Pirzl, 2004) (data contributions from J Bannister S Burnell C Kemper, P Needham).

The feeding habitat of Southern Right Whales is very poorly known and there have been no dedicated studies in feeding areas. Based on sightings information, most feeding areas are thought to be in deeper offshore waters ranging from sub-Antarctic areas to locations south of 60°S (Bannister et al. 1999; Bannister et al. 1997; Goodall & Galeazzi 1986; Ohsumi & Kasamatsu 1986; Tormosov et al. 1998) in areas probably associated with climatic and environmental conditions generating high productivity. A single coastal feeding area has been identified off the west coast of Africa where upwelling and thermocline development is apparent, and oceanographic conditions are thought to provide suitable feeding conditions (Best et al. 2002). Migratory habitat parameters are unknown.

Age at sexual maturity: Females 5-6 years; Males unknown (Payne 1986).

Life expectancy: Life expectancy is unknown, but thought to be 50+ years (Bannister et al. 1996). A North Atlantic Right Whale was known to be at least 65 years old (Hamilton et al. 1998) and recent evidence from the closely related Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) indicates they can live to over 150 years (George et al. 1999).

Natural mortality: Natural mortality is unknown for adult whales, but is possibly fairly low. Adult female survival rates for the South African population were estimated to be 0.98 (Best et al. 2001a). Mortality of calves, juveniles, or weakened or sick adult whales may result from shark attack, although healthy adult whales are unlikely to be vulnerable. Bite marks and scars consistent with shark attack have been photographed on calves and calving females, and direct attacks on a sub-adult and an entangled adult whale have been observed (Burnell 1998-2000; Burnell 1999; Pirzl & Burnell 2001-2005). Calves and possibly adults may be vulnerable to Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) particularly during migration and in high latitudes (Bannister et al. 1996). Adult Southern Right Whales rarely strand (Bannister et al. 1996). Southern Right Whale calves are occasionally found dead stranded and neonatal mortality at Head of Bight was observed to be at least 3% during the first three months of life (Burnell 1999)


Southern Right Whales generally have one calf at three year intervals (Bannister 1990; Best 1981; Burnell 2001; Payne et al. 1990). A mean calving interval of 3.64 (0.13 was calculated for the Australian population from individual identification studies) amounting to a calf production rate of 0.275 calves per year per mature female (Burnell 2001). The mean interval for Australian right whales is comparable with intervals of 3.7 years for the Argentine population (Payne 1986), and 3.12 (0.05 years for the South African population (Best et al. 2001a). A smaller but significant proportion of mature females calve on a four-year cycle. Two, five and six or more year inter-calf intervals have been documented and are likely to be attributable to the loss of a young calf reducing the breeding interval, and/or to the combination of several shorter intervals that went undetected. (Best et al. 2001a; Burnell 2001; Cooke et al. 2001; Payne 1986).

Southern Right Whale calving grounds are found at mid to lower latitudes and are occupied during the austral winter and early-mid spring. Mating occurs within these breeding grounds as evidenced by many observations of intromission and mating behaviours (Burnell et al. 1990; Burnell & Bryden 1997; Donnelly, 1967; Payne 1986). In Australia, peak periods for mating are from mid-July through August as documented in population biology studies at Head of Bight, South Australia (Burnell 1999). Group mating behaviour and the large size of Southern Right Whale testes have resulted in the proposition of polygamous mating in which sperm competition plays a role as important reproductive strategies (Brownell Jr & Ralls, 1986). Mating frequently involves energetic surface active behaviour.Large groups of ten or more males jostling for position alongside a female can form (Kraus & Hatch, 2001).

Southern Right Whales exhibit a strong tendency to return to the same breeding location (Bannister 1990; Burnell 1999; Payne 1986). This is particularly evident for reproductively mature females, where 92% showed a tendency to return to the Head of Bight calving area (Burnell 1999). Around 85% of calves born at Head of Bight also exhibited fidelity to their birthing location (Burnell 1999). Site fidelity is not, however, complete. Individuals do make long distance coastwise movements within a breeding season (Burnell 2001; Burnell & McKenna 1996), and movement of reproductively mature females between the breeding grounds of two separate populations has been recorded (Environment Australia 2002). While Southern Right Whales can be considered a highly mobile species, the tendency for individuals to return to the same location may limit or delay dispersion.

Gestation has been calculated from data from the Head of Bight calving ground as approximately 355 days for Australian right whales (Burnell 1999) and 357-396 days for the South African population (Best 1994). However, females are rarely seen at calving grounds in the year prior to birthing (Best 1994; Burnell & Bryden 1997; Payne 1986) when mating is occurring, as would be expected if gestation lasted 11-12 months. This may be explained by only a brief coastal residency by the female in the year prior to giving birth, and thus a reduced chance of being observed by identification studies (Best 1994; Payne 1986) or by mating also occurring in offshore waters (Best 1994; Brownell Jr & Ralls, 1986; Payne 1986). It is also possible that gestation lasts up to two years, or that fertilisation or implantation are delayed (Payne 1986).

Individual identification studies in Australia have documented females on calving grounds that are shortly thereafter photographed with a neonate calf, indicating that birthing takes place in near shore waters (Burnell & Bryden 1997). Photogrammetry techniques have been used in South Africa to calculate a calf growth rate of 2.78 (0.71 cm per day) (Best and Ruther 1992). Although females are occasionally accompanied by yearlings, photo-identification resights show that calves are usually weaned within 12 months (Burnell 2001). Data from catches of Southern Right Whales by the former Soviet Union suggested that lactation lasts at least 7-8 months (Tormosov et al. 1998). Reproductive maturity has been estimated at seven years (range 5-8) from sightings of nine calving females of known age (six to nine years) in the Australian population (Burnell & Pirzl, unpublished data), seven years in the Argentine population (Payne 1986), and has been modelled at 7.88 years for the South African population (Best et al. 2001a).

Long-term population biology studies based on photographic re-sight data show that individual Southern Right Whales, particularly calving females, tend to return to the same coastal locations eg. (Bannister 1990; Best 1990b; Burnell 1999; Payne 1986). Interchange of calving locations by mature females is, however, not uncommon within the Australian population (Burnell 2001), and two instances of interchange between the Australian and New Zealand populations have been recorded (Environment Australia 2002). The residency period of female-calf pairs in calving areas is significantly longer (70 days) than that of unaccompanied adults (21 days) (Burnell & Bryden 1997). The tendency for individuals to return to the same location for breeding year after year, and to spend relatively long periods of time in that location, makes them susceptible to the cumulative impact of any adverse or disturbing conditions that may exist or arise at that location.

Conditions required for successful breeding are not well understood. Factors operating in other components of habitat (such as feeding areas and possibly migratory areas) will influence breeding success. Specific parameters of importance and the manner in which they operate to affect breeding success, including the temporal scales over which they may operate, are unknown. The habitat features of calving areas have been described for South Africa and were found to include shallow water, sandy bottoms and shelter from prevailing weather (Elwen & Best 2004a; Elwen & Best 2004b). The influence of social structure on reproductive success in the South African population is thought to be potentially as important as environmental conditions (Elwen & Best 2004c). Factors influencing the selection of coastal breeding habitat in Australia are currently being investigated.

Knowledge of Southern Right Whale prey items has been gained primarily from stomach contents data collected from the until recently unreported Soviet whaling in the Southern Ocean during the 1950s-1970s (Tormosov et al. 1998). Southern Right Whales were found to feed on both euphausids and copepods, with a latitudinal variation in diet (Matthews, 1938; Tormosov et al. 1998). The predominant prey item north of 40°S was copepods, but these were replaced by krill south of 50°S (Tormosov et al. 1998). South of Australia, observations of suspected feeding behaviour suggested that Southern Right Whales also feed on amphipod crustaceans (Bannister et al. 1997). Northern Right Whales are known to consume the larval Munida gregaria (Cummings 1985), larval cirripedes (barnacles) (Mayo & Marx, 1990) copepods of the genus Calanaus and Pseduocalanaus (Murison & Gaskin, 1989).

Data from sightings and a satellite telemetry study show that feeding grounds of Southern Right Whales probably lie between about 32°S and 65°S (Bannister et al. 1997; Best et al. 2002; Goodall & Galeazzi 1986; Ohsumi & Kasamatsu 1986; Tormosov et al. 1998). They are generally thought to be in offshore waters, however a coastal feeding area on the west African coast has recently been identified using satellite telemetry (Best et al. 2002).

Feeding is thought to occur principally during the austral summer, but most likely extends into spring and autumn. This information is based on a direct observation of Southern Right Whale feeding (Bannister et al. 1997) and the seasonality of stomach contents sampled from Soviet whaling ships (Tormosov et al. 1998). As might be expected from the prey distribution, foraging is not generally observed on winter breeding grounds, although opportunistic feeding has been reported at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina (Thomas 1987). Whether feeding occurs elsewhere in winter is unknown.


Most observations of feeding Right Whales have been made in the northern hemisphere. Skim feeding Northern Right Whales swim at the surface of the water with mouths open, capturing prey items against the baleen (Mayo & Marx, 1990). Foraging dives are relatively shallow in comparison to some other cetacean species and have been reported from tag data as an average of 7.9 m to a maximum of 85.3 m (Winn et al. 1995), with a more recent study showing consistent dives to a depth of 80-175 m (Baumgartner & Mate 2003). The depth of foraging dives are associated with the distribution and concentration of zooplankton and stratification of the water column (Baumgartner & Mate 2003; Baumgartner et al. 2003b; Winn et al. 1995).

Feeding areas for Northern Right Whales have been found to be coincident with oceanographic fronts along which prey concentrate (Baumgartner et al. 2003a; Murison & Gaskin, 1989). There is evidence from aerial surveys that Northern Right Whales preferentially select areas of highest prey concentration and will alter swim direction to remain within those areas (Watkins & Schevill, 1979). It is possible that they target slower moving copepods in preference to faster moving euphausids (Murison & Gaskin, 1989).

It seems likely that the general form of foraging behaviour of Southern Right Whales would be similar to their congeners, although strategies may vary where different prey items are targeted or where the oceanographic conditions influencing prey aggregation are different.

Migratory and long-distance offshore movements

Australian Southern Right Whales migrate seasonally between higher latitudes and mid latitudes. They are regularly present on the Australian coast from about mid-May to mid-November. Isolated sightings of individuals may also be made outside the periods of regular presence, although summer occurrence would be highly unusual. The general timing of migratory arrivals and departures varies slightly on an inter-annual basis (Bannister 1979-2005; Burnell 1998-2000; Pirzl & Burnell 2001-2005). Although the specific triggers for migratory movements are unknown, Burnell & Bryden (1997) propose several potential triggers for migration away from the Australian coast at the end of the breeding season.

Although migration is not as extensive as for some baleen whale species (Dawbin, 1966), long distance migratory movements of several thousand kilometres have been reported from photo-identification re-sighting data of Australian and South Atlantic Southern Right Whales, where movements from 32°S to 64°S and over 2,272km respectively were made (Bannister et al. 1999; Best et al. 1993). Other long distance movements of up to 4,424 km have been reported for South Atlantic Right Whales (Best et al. 1993), and movements between the Australian and New Zealand calving grounds of 3629 km have been documented (Environment Australia 2002; Environment Australia 2004). Migration speeds are unknown but medium range coastal movements indicate sustained travel at 1.1-3.7 km/hr (Burnell 2001) and female-calf pairs leaving the Head of Bight calving ground maintained speeds of 2.7-4.2 km/hr over 24 hours (Burnell unpublished data). Swimming speed near shore is generally slow, but they are capable of 15+ km/hr over short distances (Bannister et al. 1996).

Migratory pathways are not well known (Bannister et al. 1997). A circular, anticlockwise migration pattern south of the Australian continent was proposed by Hart et al. (1842) based on the seasonal location of whaling activity. This generalised migratory pattern is further supported by the majority of within year coastal movements being in a westerly direction and between year coastal movements being in an easterly direction (Burnell 2001). Within such an overall pattern it is likely that the majority of individual whales make direct approaches to the coast as the relative infrequency of sightings outside major calving areas is not consistent with a widely used near-shore migratory pathway.

Movements within coastal calving habitat

Data on coastal movements in Australian waters has been has been accumulated from the comparison of Australian photo-identification catalogues. Southern Right Whales undertake long range coastwise movements showing use of widely separated areas within a single season (Burnell 2001). Of 18 within-year movements greater than 200 km made by whales identified at the Head of Bight (South Australia), the distance travelled ranged from 211 km to 1490 km (Burnell 2001). Most were made by unaccompanied adults (only one movement (704 km) made by a female with calf) (Burnell 2001), implying greater mobility of this population class within coastal habitat. Sexually mature females were recorded altering location between subsequent calving events on 13 occasions, with the most widely separated calving locations being Halsell Bay (Western Australia) to Fowlers Bay (South Australia) (Burnell 2001).


Structured use of calving areas has been documented eg. (Burnell 1999; Payne 1986; Rowntree et al. 2001; Thomas 1987) but territorial behaviour has not been documented and there is no information available on home range.

Past threats:

Shore-based and pelagic whaling in the early to mid 1800s reduced Southern Right Whales off Australia to a remnant population. Low-level catches continued until at least the 1930s, principally in pelagic whaling operations, and a take of 3368 Southern Right Whales by the former Soviet Union in the period 1950s-1971 (Tormosov et al. 1998; Yablokov, 1994), despite international protection, is likely to have prevented significant recovery until more recent decades.

Current and future threats

Currently identified and potential threats have been detailed in the Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005-2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage 2005). The text of the plan is reproduced below:

Identified threats

1. The resumption of commercial whaling and/or the expansion of scientific whaling

The impacts of commercial hunting on Southern Right Whales have been well documented. While currently banned under the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, the potential for commercial whaling to recommence exists and pressure may well increase as the population recovers. Expansion of current scientific whaling research programs to include Southern Right Whales would also present a threat.

An additional area of concern is the potential expansion of de facto commercial whaling under the guise of scientific whaling. The IWC Convention allows member states to issue special permits to kill whales for research purposes and then process these animals for sale. Since 1986, Japan and Iceland have issued special permits for several whale species as part of their scientific whaling research programs. The recent expansion of these programs in the northern hemisphere involve the killing of various great whales including Minke, Bryde's, Fin, Sperm and Sei Whales. In addition, since the implementation of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in 1994, Japan has continued to harvest Minke whales there under special permits. While not likely in the near future, there is no guarantee that right whales will not be included in future lethal research programs.

2. Habitat degradation

Southern Right Whales use habitat seasonally and are found along the Australian coast for seven months of the year (approximately May to November). Anthropogenic (human) activities have the potential to degrade habitat important to the species. These activities may degrade habitat by operating at times that coincide with the presence of whales, or they may occur when whales are absent, but degrade habitat suitability on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. These activities may include:

  • acoustic pollution (e.g. commercial and recreational vessel noise, and seismic survey activity);
  • entanglement (e.g. in marine debris, fishing and aquaculture equipment);
  • physical injury and death from ship strike;
  • built structures that impact upon habitat availability and/or use (e.g. marinas, wharves, aquaculture installations, mining or drilling infrastructure);
  • changing water quality and pollution (e.g. runoff from land based agriculture, oil spills, outputs from aquaculture); and
  • changes to water flow regimes causing extensive sedimentation or erosion or altered currents in near shore habitat (e.g. canals and dredging).

Southern Right Whales may be particularly vulnerable to these activities because of the species' use of inshore areas for calving, some of which are close to populated centres. Currently, less than 10% of the Australian Southern Right Whale population uses the coastline east of Adelaide. This southeastern component of the population may be more vulnerable to threats due to its lower numbers and the larger and increasing human presence on Australia's southeast coast.

Habitat degradation may result in reduced occupancy and/or exclusion of individual whales from suitable habitat, compromised reproductive success, and mortality. Impacts on a sufficient number of individual whales could lead to broader impacts at the population level, e.g. by reducing recruitment to such an extent that species recovery is impeded.

Currently the Southern Right Whale population is increasing at or close to the optimum biological rate, suggesting that to date habitat degradation has not had a negative impact at the population level. Nevertheless, ongoing monitoring and management are required to ensure that habitat degradation does not become a significant issue for Southern Right Whale recovery.

Potential threats

1. Climate and oceanographic change

Modelling associated with global climate change predicts that there will be reduced productivity of Southern Ocean ecosystems and unpredictable weather events caused by increasing ocean water temperatures, changing ocean currents, rising sea levels and reductions in sea ice.

The potential impacts of climate and oceanographic change on Southern Right Whales are twofold:

1) Habitat availability

Southern Right Whale migration, feeding, and calving site selection may be influenced by factors such as ocean currents and water temperature. Any changes in these factors could affect Southern Right Whale population recovery by rendering currently used habitat areas unsuitable.

2) Food availability

Changes to climate and oceanographic processes may also lead to decreased productivity and different patterns of prey distribution and availability. Such changes would certainly affect dependant predators such as Southern Right Whales.

2. Prey depletion due to over harvesting

Southern Right Whales rely at least partly on krill as a major food source and require adequate supplies of food to accumulate energy reserves that is essential for migration and breeding. Depletion of krill through over harvesting may be a potential future threat for the Australian population of Southern Right Whales. However, it should be noted that:

  • the krill fishery is managed through the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) on an ecosystem basis which takes into account the needs of predators such as whales;
  • while the fishery is likely to grow, fishing currently occurs well within the current precautionary limits;
  • it is likely that the spatial feeding grounds of the Australian population of Southern Right Whales do not overlap with potential harvest stocks of krill further south; and
  • the extent to which dietary shifts could compensate for any reduction in krill availability is unknown.

When migrating through the East Marine Region Southern Right Whales may be affected by human interactions such as harassment, accidental collision, habitat loss or degradation, hunting, swimming programs, strandings and food stock reduction (DEW 2007a). Swimming, snorkelling or diving with whales has the potential to place both people and animals at risk (CRC Reef Research Center 2002, as cited in DEW 2007a).

In the South-West Marine Region Southern Right Whales have been known to become entangled in fishing gear during their annual migration. In the past 40 years more than 20 entanglements have been reported with the majority occurring in the Western Rock Lobster Fishery (Keys 2007, as cited in DEWHA 2008a).


A disease event may represent a catastrophic event for Australian Southern Right Whales. Reduced genetic diversity may make the population particularly susceptible to such an event. The likelihood of this occurring is completely unknown.

Continuing, long-term (decadal plus) datasets monitoring reproductive success, calving interval and abundance are crucial in order to detect population level changes of concern within timeframes that would allow conservation management measures to be effectively implemented. Due to the slow reproductive rate of Southern Right Whales any recovery from threats or threatening process is slow. Low genetic diversity likely as a result of severe exploitation has probably reduced the fitness of the population, making it more susceptible to, for example, disease events or rapid changes in habitat.

A number of measures have been identified for the abatement of threats or potential threats to Southern Right Whales. These recovery actions have been outlined in the Southern Right Whale recovery plan (Department of the Environment and Heritage 2005), the text of which is reproduced below:

Population recovery

1. Implement a program to measure population abundance, trends and recovery for Australian population of Southern Right Whales

  • Included within this activity is the need to:
    • gather information on population structures using methodologies including genetic analyses, comparisons of photo identification and telemetry studies;
    • establish models for measuring recovery and species status, incorporating a range of indicators (e.g. population numbers, structure, use of habitats etc); and
    • continue to collect long-term data sets using standardised survey methodologies for Southern Right Whales in a statistically robust manner.

Habitat use and needs

2. Implement a program to better define the characteristics (spatial, temporal, physical) of calving, feeding, and migratory areas

  • Included within this activity is the need to:
    • determine the values and characteristics of important migratory pathways and aggregation areas (calving, resting, and feeding) particularly in areas where human use is likely to impact upon the species;
    • gather information on movements, migrations, and feeding grounds - e.g. through the use of satellite tracking and other survey methods; and
    • examine the historical and potential future use of Southern Right Whale habitat with a view to defining these areas and assessing human use activities to ensure impacts are appropriately managed and regulated.

Protection from threats

3. Prevent commercial whaling and/or the expansion of scientific whaling

  • Australia should maintain its position on promoting high levels of protection for Southern Right Whales in all relevant international agreements including the IWC CITES, CMS, fisheries-related agreements, and Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM).
  • Australia should support a ban on directed take of Southern Right Whales.

4. Protect habitat important to the survival of the species

  • Ensure that in areas important to the survival of the species environmental assessment process and research activities are in place to determine the level of impact and threat of human activities, and implement management measures to ensure the ongoing recovery of the species. This should include, but not be limited to, the following actions:
    • assess and manage acoustic disturbance - including the development and application of administrative guidelines under the EPBC Act such as the "Guidelines on the application of the EPBC Act to interactions between offshore seismic operations and larger cetaceans";
    • encourage best practice approaches that will reduce the likelihood of Southern Right Whales being entangled in marine debris and marine industry equipment. If entanglements occur, manage the impact of individual entanglements through the application of national standards for disentangling large cetaceans;
    • ensure that Southern Right Whale habitat requirements are considered in the establishment and management of marine conservation areas and reserves;
    • manage the potential impacts of tourism - e.g. through the application of consistent Commonwealth and State tourism and whale watching regulations; and
    • assess and manage physical disturbance and development activities (such as ship-strike, acquaculture, pollution, recreational boating, and exploration and extraction industries) - including the application of environmental impact assessment and approvals and the development of industry guidelines and State/Commonwealth government regulations.
  • Implement education programs to inform marine users (e.g. whale watchers, fishermen, and shipping crews using important habitat) about best practice behaviours and regulations when interacting with whales.

5. Monitor and manage the potential impacts of prey depletion due to over harvesting

  • Improve knowledge of Southern Right Whale feeding ecology, and the ecology of prey species in order to determine if or when prey depletion becomes a threat.
  • Australia should support regional ecosystem approaches to krill management through its involvement in CCAMLR and other fora.

6. Monitor climate and oceanographic change

  • Develop an understanding of the effects of climate and oceanographic change on the Southern Right Whale population to determine if species survival and recovery are being, or are likely to be, affected.

Marine bioregional plans have been developed for four of Australia's marine regions - South-west, North-west, North and Temperate East. Marine Bioregional Plans will help improve the way decisions are made under the EPBC Act, particularly in relation to the protection of marine biodiversity and the sustainable use of our oceans and their resources by our marine-based industries. Marine Bioregional Plans improve our understanding of Australia's oceans by presenting a consolidated picture of the biophysical characteristics and diversity of marine life. They describe the marine environment and conservation values of each marine region, set out broad biodiversity objectives, identify regional priorities and outline strategies and actions to address these priorities. Click here for more information about marine bioregional plans.

The southern right whale has been identified as a conservation value in the Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) and South-west (DSEWPaC 2012z) marine regions. See Schedule 2 of the South-west Marine Bioregional Plan (DSEWPaC 2012z) for regional advice. Maps of Biologically Important Areas have been developed for southern right whale in the South-west Marine Region and may provide additional relevant information. Go to the conservation values atlas to view the locations of these Biologically Important Areas. The "species group report card - cetaceans" for the Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) and South-west (DSEWPaC 2012z) marine regions provide additional information.

There are currently three major studies of Southern Right Whales underway in Australia:

  • Aerial surveys of south western and south central Australia, population estimates and southwest Australia photo-identification catalogue maintenance - J Bannister Western Australian Museum (ongoing since 1976).
  • Southern Right Whale habitat preference study - R Pirzl, Deakin University (2002 to present).
  • Population biology of Southern Right Whales at Head of Bight, South Australia and south central Australia photo-identification catalogue (ongoing since 1991) - S Burnell & R Pirzl, Eubalaena Pty Ltd.

Other recent work includes:

  • Genetic study in southeast Australia - N Patenaude & R Harcourt, Macquarie University.
  • Southeast Australia photo-identification curation - M Watson, Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment.
  • Summary of mortalities and human interactions - C Kemper & S Gibbs, South Australian Museum.

Commonwealth:

Victoria:

An Action Statement has been prepared under state legislation to further protect Southern Right Whales.

South Australia:

The Management Plan for the Great Australian Bight Marine Park (DEH, SA 1998) prevents vessel access to the Head of Bight calving area seasonally. It contains objectives and provisions relating to the protection of Southern Right Whales and their calving habitat.

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Commercial harvest Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Commerical hunting of whales Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Biological Resource Use:Gathering Terrestrial Plants:Commercial harvest Right whales Caught in Waters around South-eastern Australia and New Zealand during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 10). Page(s) 261-268. (Dawbin, W.H., 1986) [Journal].
Energy Production and Mining:Mining and Quarrying:Habitat destruction, disturbance and/or modification due to mining activities The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Human Intrusions and Disturbance:Recreational Activities:Disturbance, especially from human recreational activities and development The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Natural System Modifications:Dams and Water Management/Use:Alteration of hydrological regimes and water quality Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Excess Energy:Seismic survey activities Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Excess Energy:noise Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Garbage and Solid Waste:Dumping of household and industrial waste The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Pollution:Garbage and Solid Waste:Ingestion and entanglement with marine debris Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Pollution:Deterioration of water and soil quality (contamination and pollution) Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Pollution:spillage The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Residential and Commercial Development:Tourism and Recreation Areas:Habitat modification, fragmentation and/or changed boat traffic caused by the construction and operation of marinas and wharves Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].
Species Stresses:Indirect Species Effects:Low numbers of individuals Collisions between ships and whales. Marine Mammal Science. 17:35-75. (Laist, D.W., A.R. Knowlton, J.G. Mead, A.S. Collet & M. Podesta, 2001) [Journal].
Transportation and Service Corridors:Shipping Lanes:Collision with shipping infrastructure Southern Right Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005c) [Recovery Plan].

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Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Eubalaena australis in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: http://www.environment.gov.au/sprat. Accessed Thu, 18 Sep 2014 04:16:26 +1000.