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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Speech to the planning workshop for the Southern Ocean research partnership

Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
23 March 2009

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It is a great pleasure for me to open this Planning Workshop for the Southern Ocean Research Partnership.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Aboriginal people of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I welcome Commissioners and members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee and other invited participants from across the world to this ground-breaking meeting to develop a co-operative framework for our first regional non-lethal cetacean research partnership.

All IWC scientific committee members have been invited to attend, as well as the many Commissioners who expressed enthusiastic support for this initiative when I first announced it at last years IWC meeting in Santiago, Chile.

Additionally a number of key scientists and organisations with an interest in research on Southern Ocean whales have been invited and are also taking part. It is my understanding that we have here in this room many of the worlds leaders in cetacean conservation science and I extend a warm welcome to you all.

The destruction of the worlds whale populations by industrialised hunting was an environmental catastrophe of the twentieth century. Many countries were complicit in this destruction, and nowhere was it greater in scale or intensity than the Southern Ocean, where blue, fin, right, and humpback whales were pursued to the very edge of extinction.

Australia acknowledges its own involvement in this tragedy and we must all learn from mistakes of the past to make sure they are never repeated again.

Much has changed since the signing of the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling in December 1946.

The whale oil industry has disappeared, no longer fueling the street-lights of major cities. Whale watching has become a significant economic activity -including here, in Sydney -and whale research has advanced to the point where it no longer requires lethal means to answer critical questions. We are also increasingly recognising the key role whales play in maintaining healthy and robust marine ecosystems.

The transformation away from whales as a strategic resource was perhaps unprecedented, as author Charlotte Epstein says:

Whale oil constitutes the only form of energy that our societies both centrally depended upon and turned away from completely. At a time when the reliance on oil raises increasing questions, this in itself is food for thought.1

Thirty years ago, a dramatic change in attitude toward whales swept across the globe, including across Australia: to save the whales from extinction, to help their populations recover and to restore their place in the worlds oceans. This international change in attitude led to a significant policy shift, culminating in 1986 with the introduction of the historic global moratorium on commercial whaling.

The moratorium was, and remains, critical for the recovery of whales. Encouragingly, some species are showing healthy signs of recovery, with humpback and southern right whales,for example, increasing in numbers and becoming a more common sight along Australias coastlines.

But while the IWC has had some success in developing, agreeing and implementing measures for the conservation of whales, the conservation status of the majority of whale species remains of concern.

The population of South Pacific humpback whales has recently had its conservation listing increased from threatened to endangered; Antarctic blue whales, the largest animal that has ever lived, remain at an estimated two per cent or so of their original abundance, and the population size of the endangered fin whales, of which some three quarters of a million were killed in the Southern Ocean, remains low and far from assured.

I am also aware of the concerns my South American colleagues hold for their populations of southern right whales, particularly the very small, endangered population on the west coasts of Chile and Peru.

So the recovery of the great whale populations remains uneven. Some populations remain subject to whaling that is not within the control of the IWC. At the same time these and other populations are vulnerable to a wide range of current and emerging threats such as fisheries bycatch, marine pollution, cetacean diseases, risks associated with growing whale watching industries, climate change, ship strikes, and habitat disturbances.

How then can the IWC best meet these challenges?

The signatories to the whaling convention in 1946 may not have been able to imagine the future threats facing the worlds cetaceans, nor the changing directions of peoples interest in, and concern for, whale populations.

But they assuredly would have expected the IWC to reflect these changes and see them implemented in a modernisation process through the Convention.

With this in mind, I am very proud that Australia has deeply engaged and taken a proactive approach to the current discussions on the future of the IWC.

Last June, at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Santiago, Chile, we presented a watershed paper which outlined our vision for the future of the Commission. I was gratified that the paper achieved overwhelming support and set out a process to bring forward the most significant reform for the Commission in its 60 year history.

Our reform proposals are based on principles of modern oceans management, including notions of precautionary approaches, intergenerational equity and an integrated approach to ecosystem-based management.

The paper included three fundamental components.

Firstly, we proposed that all forms of whaling, including what is known as scientific whaling, be bought fully under the control of the Commission such that Parties can no longer unilaterally decide to kill whales in the name of science.

Secondly, our paper introduced the concept of new, non-whaling-related mechanisms, in the form of Conservation Management Plans, to collaboratively combat the many threats whales face.

It is encouraging to see these Conservation Management Plans are already discussed asmainstream activities within the IWC, and are likely to begin to be applied to some of the worlds most threatened cetaceans after further discussions at the next IWC annual meeting in June in Madeira, Portugal.

Finally, and of direct relevance to today, our paper put forward the very practical proposal of moving away from the current nation by nation approach to cetacean research, through the establishment of voluntary regional research partnerships to maximise the use of scarce resources, build the capacity of countries not able to conduct this work independently, and align this work with the conservation needs of cetaceans.

We proposed these partnerships to provide the necessary scientific underpinning for all of the IWC activities and to advance the conservation needs for global cetaceans.

Today we are commencing the first and largest of these partnerships; the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, which will be cemented over the course of this week and result in a five-year research plan to be taken to the next annual meeting of the IWC.

Over the next few days, I understand that you will look at current Southern Ocean whale research efforts and identify important gaps in our scientific needs. Youll then determine future research priorities and capabilities and the most appropriate non-lethal research techniques to gain the scientific knowledge we require.

In contrast to the historical practice of each Commission member determining its own priorities for Southern Ocean science and then applying their national research efforts, this workshop provides a coordinated and transparent mechanism to prioritise and then deliver the necessary research to fill knowledge gaps.

This idea for regional non-lethal cetacean research partnerships heralds a new era for the Commission.

It is indeed a major step towards modernising the Commissions research framework and improving cooperation and collaboration between member parties. It is, I believe, the way of the future.

While some excellent and relevant science has been done to date, efforts have been fragmented and high-level research needs have not always been met.

Australia believes research partnerships are the way to bring IWC member countries together in a coordinated and cooperative way to deliver agreed, priority science to the Scientific Committee and the Commission.

I firmly believe that the proper conservation and management of cetaceans can only be achieved if management actions are underpinned by a rigorous scientific framework.

That framework should:

While the Scientific Committee has addressed some of these elements and produced some excellent science, its members are aware that there are ways to better prioritise and coordinate the research undertaken by IWC member countries.

Its one thing to attend an international meeting and propose a new way of doing things and everyone agrees its a good idea. Its another thing to act.

So I am extremely proud to say Australia has now backed up our ground-breaking proposal put forward in Santiago, Chile, by allocating funding to get this model Southern Ocean Research Partnership up and running.

Australia has taken the lead in cetacean science by committing over $14million to develop and lead this Southern Ocean Research Partnership and to ensure it hassufficient support, in the form of research platforms, scientists and equipment, to continue to at least until 2013-2014.

Further to this, Australia will make a one-off contribution of $500,000 to the IWC to establish a Southern Ocean Research Partnership Fund, to be administered by the IWC.

This substantial contribution from Australia will establish a mechanism by which other countries can access resources to allow them to directly support and take part in the Southern Ocean Research Partnership.

While the Southern Ocean Research Partnership Fundhas been initiated with a significant contribution from the Australian Government, it will be open to voluntary contributions from all member nations.

It is hoped that through contributions from other IWC nations, the Southern Ocean Research Partnership will have a long and extremely useful lifespan; and that indeed it will become the model by which the IWC conducts its research efforts into the future.

Our aim, through collaboration with many of you in thisroom, is to create the largest international whale program in the world, focussed on delivering important science on Southern Ocean whales and utilising the most powerful non-lethal techniques.

A little later this morning you will hear from Dr Gales a summary of the huge advances in non-lethal methods, and how they can now address the pressing technical requirements for effective conservation management.

I am confident the Southern Ocean Research Partnership will establish worlds best practice standardsfor non-lethal whale research within the IWC.

As the first truly international multi-disciplinary non-lethal whale research partnership, the Southern Ocean Research Partnership will accelerate the development of new non-lethal research technologies and greatly increase research capacity.

This will be particularly beneficial to developing nations, many of whom are present here this week, who have the capability and motivation but often lack the necessary resources to support the research to improve whale conservation and management in their own waters.

Modern day research technologies such as genetic and molecular techniques, satellite tagging, acoustic surveys and aerial surveying of cetacean populations will give the world real advances in cetacean conservation and management; this is science that will make the world will sit up and take notice.

By the end of the week, this new Southern Ocean Research Partnership will have a multi-national research plan, a summary of available resources for the forthcoming season, mechanisms to review and assess the progress of this work and links to national and other research programs.

For the first time, the world is seeing a new coordinated and cooperative approach to non-lethal regional whale research in the Southern Ocean -an approach which reduces key uncertainties, closes knowledge gaps, links to other important international Conventions such as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and improves the outcomes for all cetaceans across the globe.

Together we will design and implement a future research and conservation agenda. I am confident this agenda become the focus for scientific research on whales in the Southern Ocean, providing a model for other regional partnerships.

The worlds attitude to whales has been transformed before, and together we have the opportunity to transform the worlds approach to whale scientific research.

I wish all participants well in your deliberations and look forward to seeing your research plan.

1Charlotte Epstein, The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse, 2008: 1

Commonwealth of Australia