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Speech
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Address to the Eden Whale Festival
17 October 2003

Check against delivery

Australians and Whales - Celebrating Our Journey


Introduction - whaling history

It was with great pleasure that earlier today I opened the Eden Whale Festival. I did so as the Minister for the Environment and Heritage of a nation that is renowned throughout the world:

As a Government and as a people, we are rightly proud of our well-deserved reputation. Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting that, three or four decades ago, that claim would have been unthinkable.

Let's not forget that, until the end of the 1970s, Australia was a whaling nation.

They were the objects of an insatiable industry based on whale oil, and with others, we very nearly wiped them off the face of the earth.

They are the focus of a tourism industry which, when well regulated, does no harm to the whales. In the long-run, whale watching will earn us far more than whale hunting ever could. It's an industry that allows the resources on which it depends to continue to recover from their history of over-exploitation. This is what sustainable environmental management is all about.

As an island continent, Australia has always depended heavily upon the oceans. Whaling for oil was one of Australia's first export industries. The Davidson Whaling Station was among the first of the continent's commercial operations. Many more followed in search of their fortune, and whaling continued in Australian waters until 1979 when the last operation, in Albany, Western Australia, closed.

The transition Australia has made over the past quarter-century, from a whaling nation to a world leader in whale watching and whale conservation, is remarkable.

Nothing better illustrates this turn-around than Eden's Whale Festival, which celebrates all that whales mean to this region. For generations in Eden, the arrival of humpback whales and southern right whales was a cue for the men of the Davidson Whaling Station to ready their harpoons in and around Twofold Bay.

These days, the people of Eden still eagerly anticipate the whale season.

Today I'd like to touch briefly on the bigger picture, of the steps we have taken as a nation to make the same transition in our attitudes to whales as Eden has.

Ladies and gentlemen, in Eden as elsewhere in Australia, whaling is history.

Whale watching is here to stay.

But there is no call for complacency - elsewhere on the globe, whales are still threatened. In Eden, whaling is in its rightful place - in the past.

The end of whaling in Australia and a new age of conservation

Ladies and gentlemen, the end of whaling in Australia heralded a new age of whale conservation.

Over the past quarter of a century, Australians and their Governments have taken important steps to protect whales in our waters and to lead international campaigns to protect whales.

Throughout the 20th century, the companies engaged in the rapacious international whaling industry competed with each other for the largest harvests, particularly in Antarctic waters. The targets of this industry changed, as one species after another was driven to the brink of extinction.

First, southern right whales were decimated. This was the first species to be subject to large scale hunting, and it was virtually extinct in Australian waters by the mid-1800s. It is estimated that at least 26,000 were taken from south-eastern Australia alone out of a total population in the Southern Hemisphere of about 60,000 prior to whaling. Before World War Two, whalers were finding fewer and fewer blue whales, and so they started hunting fin whales.

Populations of humpback whales off Australia's east and west coasts appear to be increasing at a healthy rate in recent years. Who could have imagined thirty years ago that we would see humpback whales cavorting in Sydney Harbour as they did earlier this week. This is a welcome miracle, given that humpback whaling off Australia collapsed in the mid-1960s, due simply to a lack of whales to hunt.

Here in Eden in the early 50s, we believe 10,000 humpbacks passed by each year - by 1962 the numbers had plunged to around 100.

In the 1960s and 70s, there were few whalers left, because there were so few whales left. Those that remained turned to less preferred species: this pushed sei whales to endangered status, and next brought the smaller minke whale into the harpooner's sights.

The Government of Malcolm Fraser was conscious of this deplorable lesson in how not to manage a resource, and, in the late 1970s, it decided it was time to reassess Australia's policy. Australia was at that stage the only English-speaking country with a commercial whaling industry - it was at Albany in WA. The last of the UK's fleets was sold in 1963 and New Zealand shut down its whaling operations at about the same time. The US ceased commercial whaling in 1972, Canada in 1973 and South Africa in 1976.

Prime Minister Fraser commissioned an independent inquiry, "to look at every aspect of whaling". Sir Sydney Frost headed this inquiry. From March to December 1978 it held high-profile public hearings and received dozens of submissions. In December 1978, the Frost Inquiry sent its recommendations to the Government.

Following this, the Government passed the Whale Protection Act 1980, which prohibited the killing of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Australian waters. It also prohibited, capturing, injuring or interfering with these animals. The import of all whale products was also banned.

The Whale Protection Act marked how far we had come as a nation. Australians knew that human beings in the second half of the twentieth century could not possibly claim they needed whale products to survive - there was no excuse for the slaughter.

In the mid-1990s, fulfilling a key election commitment in coming into office in 1996, the Howard Government commissioned another inquiry to revisit the topic of whales and whaling. The National Task Force on Whaling, chaired by Christopher Puplick, former Senator for New South Wales, met from 1996 to 2000.

The Howard Government's position on whales is clear.

We are absolutely opposed to any description of commercial whaling - which includes that undertaken under the guise of so-called "scientific-whaling". We believe the practice of killing whales is unjustifiable.

At home, the Whale Protection Act was replaced in July 2000 by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This Act declared an Australian Whale Sanctuary in all Commonwealth waters - part of an exclusive economic zone of some 16 million square kilometres.

Australia's opposition to whaling goes further than simply being one based on their massive over exploitation and current threatened status. The Australian Government believes that there is no humane way to kill a whale.

More about our efforts at home later, but first to what we're doing on the world stage.

Current international campaigns: the International Whaling Commission

The International Whaling Commission, or IWC, has met every year since 1949. And Australia has been at every meeting - first as a whaling nation, and lately as a leading voice for whale conservation. We're still there, not because we have any intention of resuming whaling, but because we believe that the IWC has still not finished its primary job, which is to safeguard for future generations what its original Convention referred to as "the great natural resources represented by the whale stocks."

Since our change in policy, Australia has been a driving force behind strong whale conservation initiatives in the International Whaling Commission. We are one hundred percent behind retaining the moratorium on commercial whaling, which has stood since 1985-86.

At the IWC, Australia has consistently supported the establishment of whale sanctuaries - to protect whales in areas where they were once hunted to the brink of extinction, and to allow researchers the opportunity to study these extraordinary animals free from disturbance by hunters.

I have regarded it as important that Australia should be represented at these meetings at Ministerial level.

Australia and New Zealand have jointly proposed the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary at the past four Annual Meetings of the IWC.

It has been encouraging on each occasion that our proposal received a majority of votes. However, we have not yet achieved the three-quarters voting majority that is required to establish this sanctuary.

Without doubt the IWC functions under a truly frustrating Convention.

For instance, Norway will allow itself a commercial quota of 670 minke whales in 2004, despite the moratorium, because it has lodged an objection to that decision.

Under this loophole, Japan currently takes 440 minke whales annually from the Antarctic; and 150 minke, 50 sei, 50 Bryde's and 10 sperm whales from the North Pacific. Iceland has recently joined Japan, by targeting 38 minkes in the North Atlantic. Should Iceland pursue its original plan, it will ultimately take up to 250 of various species each year.

At the IWC, we are outspoken opponents of all attempts to undermine the moratorium, not least through the disingenuous practice of so-called "scientific" whaling, which is in practice thinly-disguised commercial whaling.

At this year's meeting of the Scientific Committee, 40 scientists took the extraordinary measure of formally registering their concerns about scientific whaling permits. Their statement, that so-called "scientific whaling" amounts to an abuse of IWC provisions for research, was made public during the first day of the 55th meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

Australia endorses these concerns. So called "scientific whaling" has no credible research framework, it is premised on a hollow argument about how many fish whales eat, and the sort of questions it claims to be addressing could be answered without killing whales.

The scientists' statement reads in part:

"Member governments that promote poorly conceived research whaling programmes place their scientists in the untenable position of having to defend these proposals in order to support the agendas of their governments. In turn, this causes unnecessary conflict between Scientific Committee members … and undermines the basis by which the IWC manages stocks of whales."

The Australian Government supports and promotes non-lethal research. We oppose the sort of research that delivers whale meat to food markets.

Here in Australia, we're world leaders in research into living whales. One of the latest methods involves the challenging task of collecting and analysing whale faeces. At the Australian Antarctic Division, based in Tasmania, a dedicated band of "whale poo experts" are pioneering methods of studying DNA residues in faeces. This should allow us to study whales' feeding habits throughout their life, rather than drawing conclusions based only on a whale's last meal before being struck by a harpoon.

Australia has also been influential in the establishment and maintenance of the Indian Ocean Whale and Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuaries in the face of opposition from pro-whaling nations.

At this year's IWC meeting, there was a further sign that more countries' attitudes are slowly shifting towards a conservation focus in managing whale stocks. The adoption of the Berlin Initiative, which establishes a conservation committee that will report to the IWC recognises that the IWC has evolved from a closed old-boys whaling club to an organization committed to the conservation of whales.

So there is much to be optimistic about what the future holds for whale conservation.

Without a doubt the tide of world opinion is moving to a position where whales will be no longer hunted and pushed further towards the brink of extinction.

However, constant vigilance is required, as small but powerful sectoral whaling interests continue to lobby pro-whaling Governments to continue and increase the hunt. This sets the scene each year for a confrontational IWC meeting where if the pro-whaling bloc is not vigorously challenged the majority who argue for whale protection, could be overwhelmed.

History has shown that small interest groups - in this case the whaling industry - can slow change - but in the long-run, the voice of the growing community who oppose whaling will get louder and louder.

National Governments will then eventually take stock and listen to their people - just as Australia did in the late seventies and eighties - and just as the cessation of whaling in Australia was a quantum change in direction from our previous historical and cultural views of whales, so to will it be a quantum change for countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland.

The more whales people see, the more entranced they become and the more opposed to governments and industries that condone the killing. Eden brings thousands of visitors in touch with what we can learn from these magnificent creatures.

An unfinished job

So long as commercial whaling continues, including what's done in the name of "science," our task of bringing about a permanent international ban on commercial whaling is unfinished business.

At next year's IWC meeting, the Southern Ocean Sanctuary will be reviewed - I can assure you that Australia will be at the forefront of efforts to present scientific evidence to support the retention of that Sanctuary. Equally, I can assure you that this will not be achieved without a major battle.

But we're ready for the fight.

Leadership in Australia

Our outspoken role in the global scene is built on the transformation of conservation policies here in Australian waters. You in Eden are central to that new direction in whale conservation.

Killer whales have already been seen in Twofold Bay this year, and you'll soon be seeing those humpbacks who played so spectacularly in Sydney Harbour. If you're lucky you'll see southern right whales, minke and blue whales , and the Bryde's whale.

Numbers of southern right whales in Australian waters are estimated to have increased from less than 100 in 1985 to around 1400 today. Similarly humpback numbers have increased from a similar position to approximately six to eight thousand on the east coast of Australia.

In the past 20 years whale watching as an industry has developed in line with the recovery of whale populations. It is estimated in 1998 that there were 223 whale watching operations in Australia and today the current value to the economy is over $70 million.

Since July 2000, Australia's 16 million square kilometer ocean territory has been designated a whale sanctuary and there are strict penalties for those who injure or interfere with whales within the sanctuary.

But there are still man-made threats to the recovery of whale populations right along our coastlines.

One of the greatest threats is marine debris. A staggering six million tones of debris enters the world's oceans every year . Even more horrifying - there are an estimated 46 000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of every ocean.

Some of you here will have seen the dreadful pictures of the endangered Bryde's whale, washed up in Cairns with a stomach virtually full of fishing nets and compacted plastic bags. Others may have come across whales that are injured or even dead after entanglement with fishing lines, fragments of trawl netting or plastic packing straps. You'll have seen how fishing lines and ropes can cut into the whale's skin leading to infection or the slow and painful amputation of the tail.

It is because marine debris is such a significant threat to the survival of already threatened and endangered whales, that I have recently listed it as a key threatening process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. We are now working with the fishing industry and all the states and territories on plans to drastically reduce the amount of dangerous rubbish that threatens our marine mammals.

In addition I have listed five species of great whales as threatened under this Act, one of the world's powerful wildlife protection laws. This listing process has triggered the development of what we call a ‘recovery plan' for each species. It's a coordinated response by researchers, state agencies, the indigenous community, the fishing industry, non-government organizations and Australian government agencies - all of whom are working together on what needs to be done to help each of these species flourish again. Some of the solutions lie in new technology - biodegradable fishing lines, for example - others in better management of the oceans' natural resources or even just sharing best conservation practice around the country.

Over the past week in Tasmania , dozens of marine officers and volunteers have been given a crash course on saving whales either stranded or entangled in fishing net. The training was carried out by experts from WA…just the cooperation and skill-sharing that we are fostering under recovery plans.

Since 1996, the Howard Government has invested over $2 million through the Natural Heritage Trust in research and other activities designed to promote whale conservation.

So perhaps it's not too much to hope that in our children's or grandchildren's lifetimes we will once again see thousands of great whales making the annual migration south along this coast.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen

It's been a very great pleasure to be here today as part of Eden's Whale Festival.

I'm very proud of Australia's achievements, from a whaling nation to whale conservation - of the way government and the community have transformed the policies of barbaric slaughter to sustainable industry, conservation and sanctuary.

Abroad, our battle to achieve similar levels of protection for whales is far from won.. But the word is spreading. The more whales people see, the more entranced they become and the more opposed to governments and industries that condone the killing.

The revival of whale numbers will not come quickly. But if whale watching today is a memorable and inspirational experience, imagine what that experience would be like if whale populations around Australia were to return to their pre-whaling numbers, when some 25,000 humpbacks annually migrated up the east coast of Australia, or instead of around a thousand Southern Rights we could see again a Southern Hemisphere population of around 60,000, or instead of around 1400 Blue Whales there were 240,000. What fantastic sights of nature these populations would have been, and what rewards await us if we do all we can to protect ad revive the populations of the great whales.

Eden brings thousands of visitors in touch with what we can learn from these magnificent creatures. Events like Eden's Whale Festival reinvigorate the world-wide campaign. I can assure you that I'll be doing my utmost to win that global conservation campaign.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia