Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Eavesdropping on the elusive blue whale at Australian Antarctic Division, Hobart, Tasmania

4 October 2012

TONY BURKE: When Australia and I as Australia's Environment Minister launched the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, it was there to make sure that we started turning the corner not merely on conservation but on the science that could be drawn from conservation. It was also an opportunity for the conservation nations of the world to show up in lights that if you wanted to conduct scientific research into whales you don't need to harpoon them, chop them up and sell them for food. If you want to conduct scientific research on whales then you can do it through ordinary scientific methods.

The flagship part of that work is the research into the blue whale. The blue whale wins every test that you could possibly put on whether or not a species is going to be iconic. In terms of its total numbers and the threat that it has been under it has been right to the brink. During the whaling years in the order of about 346,000 blue whales were slaughtered. The Antarctic blue whale in the southern ocean in the order of about 200,000 of them were lost during those whaling years up until the mid 80s. It was believed that their numbers got right down to probably in the order of about 500 individual blue whales.

As an iconic species, we are talking about the largest mammal, the largest animal in the history of the planet. There was never a dinosaur as large as the blue whale. But then when there is only about 500 in a place as large as the ocean, how do you actually do the most basic scientific research like finding them and counting the numbers.

The work that will begin - and we have 11 nations, 10 of the other conservation nations involved in this work over the next summer period - is quite ground breaking in what's now been able to be possible in finding and counting blue whales. Effectively for the first time the new technology that goings to be able to be used this summer will allow Australian researches to eavesdrop on the conservations that blue whales have with each other by using these advanced audio methods we will be able to locate the blue whales instead of just hoping for an accident that maybe one would surface near a vessel. But be able to used advanced technology to find, locate, track blue whales so that we can then learn the answers to those key questions that you need when the numbers have got so low.

In the first instance to start to get a better read of what the numbers are today. To be able to do tagging and tracking, to be able take biopsies. We need to be able to get the beginnings of the sorts of information that we have for so many iconic species on land but has always eluded us with the blue whale and also to send a message to the world that scientific research in the Sothern Ocean is an important thing to do. Scientific research into whales and in particular into that most iconic of whale species, the blue whale is a fundamental underpinning of learning to understand our oceans.

But finally of course that you don't need lethal methods to be able to conduct scientific research and it will expose once and for all the lie that is behind so called scientific whaling. What Australian researchers will be doing in the field this summer is science at its core. Its scientific information that will help us learn not only about the blue whale, but will help us learn about a whole range of issue related to how the blue whale interacts with the rest of our magnific oceans.

I want to congratulate those researchers who have been involved and once again, we have a situation where loud and clear for all Australians and indeed for the world we are here in Tasmanian establishing again Tasmania as the hub of science for the Antarctic and as Australia's gateway to the Antarctic.