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Humpback whales will be removed from Australia’s threatened-species list, after the government’s independent scientific panel on threatened species deemed the mammals had made a major recovery.
Whaling drove the species to near extinction. However since the 1980s, when the practice largely ended, the population has substantially grown.
But conservationists warn that while their numbers have bounced back, the animals still face major threats, including pollution and climate change.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the change followed advice she had received from the independent Threatened Species Scientific Committee that the humpback whale population was now strong enough for them to be removed from the list.
“They looked at issues of climate change and they looked at issues of krill fisheries as well as all of the other circumstances of the population trends for the species,” she said.
“Most of the listings I make are up-listings or introducing species and ecological communities on to the list for the first time.
Ms Ley said while the species had been delisted it was still given protection in Australian waters under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, thanks to its listing as a migratory species and a cetacean.
That status makes it an offence to kill, injure, take, trade, keep, move or interfere with a humpback.
Warming still threatens population
Marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University said the delisting could help drive more focus — and funding — to whale species that had not bounced back as strongly post-whaling.
“There’s been this momentum to celebrate the conservation of these animals, but then also reassess their listing in terms of the protection,” Dr Pirotta said.
“Ongoing cautious monitoring will remain for these populations, allowing us to focus our conservation dollars into protecting other species such as the southern right whale.”
But Dr Pirotta warned the delisting did not mean authorities could rest on their laurels, with whales facing a number of threats, particularly from climate change.
“Some of the threats that whales face globally include ship strike, entanglement in fishing gear, acoustic pollution, marine pollution and, of course, climate change,” she said.
“Climate change is a really big one because this influences where these animals might go, where prey distributions are and unfortunately, a reduction in sea ice means a reduction in Antarctic krill habitat which is one of the primary food sources of these humpback whale populations.
“It’s a bittersweet situation because you’ve got a recovering whale population, which is a great thing, but also we should be cautiously optimistic as well as to adhere to monitoring this population in the future.”
Some conservationists fear move comes too soon
When the department was considering removing humpback whales from the threatened species list last year, a number of conservationists raised concerns it was too soon.
Among them was Humane Society International’s campaign lead Nicola Beynon, who warned delisting the whales was short-sighted due to the huge threat posed by climate change.
“The recovery of humpback whales that migrate up and down the coast of Australia is definitely something to celebrate,” Ms Beynon said.
“And the Australian government has played a leadership role in that recovery, so we understand why the government wants to celebrate, but we are concerned that the celebrations could be short lived.
“Humpback whales are facing the next threat that is coming down the line really seriously, which is climate change, and the predictions are that humpback whale recovery will slow and go into reverse.”
Ms Beynon warned there could be steep declines in the population by the end of the century.
She said a more precautionary decision would have been better than completely delisting the whales, and the government should consider changing how the listing system operated.
“There’s definitely room to improve our environment laws to make them more responsive to threats that species are facing in the future, particularly when they’re very well-known threats and well-predicted threats,” she said.
“The present legislation is a bit clunky in that it’s very black and white, and of course, nature is much more complicated than that.”