Into the breach?

A RECENT day trip to Rottnest Island turned into a stunning opportunity for former Herald photographer Matthew Dwyer when a southern right whale put on this breathtaking display.

“Three whales spotted on the way over, eight on the way back,” the delighted snapper said.

But could this rare and special sight be under threat? The World Wildlife Fund says krill fishing, tourism and climate change are impacting on the majestic mammals and have called for marine sanctuaries at their feeding grounds off Antarctica.

JOLLY READ is a Fremantle author and journalist who’s off on an Antarctic adventure later this month to help celebrate the World Wildlife Fund’s 40th birthday. She’ll be joined by 2007 Australian of the Year, Prof Tim Flannery, and other scientific heavyweights. But in this Special Report it’s other heavyweights on her mind – the majestic humpbacks you can see making their way along our coast, en route to their icy hunting grounds.

MAGNIFICENT humpback whales are currently off our shores on their long ocean journey back to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

To be lucky enough to spot one breaching is an awe-inspiring moment.

They are the fifth biggest of the great whales, growing to 18m and weighing up to 45 tonnes.

It’s estimated that each year 35,000 pass along our coast to spend the winter breeding in the warm waters off the Kimberley coast.

Then from September through to Christmas we see them off Freo as they make their way back to their icy home in time for summer, many of them females with newborn calves.

All up it’s a huge round trip of around 13,500km.

By all accounts, whale numbers are increasing and this year there’s even been a reported spike in southern right whales spotted off our southern coast.

It’s news welcomed by the World Wildlife Fund, which has just released a new report Whales of the Antarctic Peninsula, in conjunction with the University of California Santa Cruz.

The report highlights how satellite tracking is revealing crucial Antarctic feeding zones for these whales.

It is unlocking the mystery of exactly where they feed on krill and it highlights the urgent need for increased protection of the Western Antarctic Peninsula – a feeding hotspot.

The report is calling for international support for special marine protected areas to be established.

It’s been a big year for the WWF: it’s 40 years since it began work to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment by conserving biological diversity.

Part of that mission has been focused on protecting the humpback, which nearly became extinct through extensive hunting by commercial whalers last century.

Hunting was banned in 1963, however this has not stopped more modern commercial fishing and tourism threatining whales’ survival.

A map based on the tracking reveals humpbacks rely heavily on the peninsula for resting and feeding.

WWF Antarctic program senior manager, Chris Johnson, says their work shows that the Antarctic Peninsula and its amazing wildlife are under increasing pressure from climate change, krill fishing and a growing tourism industry.

Race against time

“We’re in a race against time to protect these waters before it’s too late. The creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas along the peninsula is crucial to help safeguard Antarctic wildlife for years to come.”

Mr Johnson co-authored the report with UCSC associate professor, Dr Ari Friedlaender, who conducted the satellite tracking, and graduate researcher Michelle Modest who visualised the analysis.

The team deployed more than 60 satellite-linked tags on humpbacks in the Antarctic between 2012-2017, covering the entire feeding season from January to July.

According to Dr Friedlaender, nearly every part of the peninsula is important to humpbacks because they are either foraging, resting or travelling between feeding spots.

To do this efficiently and without disturbance is critical to add the necessary energy stores to sustain them for the rest of the year when they migrate back; passing the western and eastern coasts to tropical breeding grounds.

In autumn, the whales follow the movement of krill concentrating in the peninsula straits and bays close to shore.

They increase their feeding rates to add the last remaining energy stores.

But the krill fishery is in direct competition with the whales as it similarly follows the krill inshore, also placing the whales at risk from disturbance or ship strikes.

And while there’s been a recent pledge by krill fishing companies to voluntarily stop fishing in parts of the peninsula with some support for the marine protected areas, krill fishing will still occur alongside feeding humpbacks.

The WWF urgently wants the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to establish a comprehensive, effective network of marine protected areas surrounding the continent – including no-take marine sanctuaries.

CCAMLR just held its 37th meeting in Hobart. It said afterwards that proposals to establish three new marine protected areas in East Antarctica, in the Weddell Sea and in the Western Antarctic Peninsula were “the subject of much discussion”, and members will continue to work on them before they are considered at next year’s meeting.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long, as there’s really no time to waste.

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