Whale Entanglement Uptick In Australian Waters

Posted Mon Jun 10, 2013 3:04pm AEST

This season, humpback whales are facing more obstacles as they migrate along the coast of Western Australia.

June marks the beginning of the northern migration where the largest population of humpbacks in the southern hemisphere travel from Antarctic feeding grounds to breeding zones off the state’s north west.

There has been a surge in the number of whales reported becoming entangled off WA in recent years.

Last year, 22 tangled whales were reported to the Department of Environment and Conservation while there were ten in 2011 and four in 2010.

Even more are expected this season.

Since January, three tangled humpback whales have been found between Jurien Bay and Geraldton.

The DEC’s senior wildlife officer Douglas Coughran says those were reported before the northern migration period had even begun.

“Any entanglement is one too many but three is high especially when you consider it’s the start of the migration season now,” he said.

He says the whales are primarily becoming entangled in rock lobster fishing floats and ropes.

“Things have changed with the approach of the lobster fishing season,” he said.

“It’s gone to a quota system where gear can be in the water longer into the times that the whales are passing through.”

According to the DEC, the 2013/14 season is the first time the rock lobster industry can fish all year round after the quota system was introduced in 2011 and gradually phased in.

Prior to that, rock lobster fishers operated during restricted periods and were required to remove pots from the water by June 30.

Increasing numbers

Mr Coughran says fishers are noticing a growing number of whales becoming entangled and they are concerned.

“They don’t go out there to catch whales, they go out there to put food on our table,” he said.

“So, we’re in that process right now of identifying how the entanglements come about and what needs to be done in a consultative way to reduce that probability.”

The Western Rock Lobster Council’s chief executive officer, John Harrison, says it is important to remember that not all entanglements are attributed to the lobster industry.

“The population of the humpback whales is increasing around 10 per cent per annum with about somewhere between 30 and 35,000 out there now,” he said.

“By 2020 they will have returned to their original virgin biomasses as far as the stock numbers are concerned so great news.”

Mr Harrison says the whales are making a terrific comeback but the industry has also changed its fishing patterns for the first time in many years.

“We’re now fishing for 12 months of the year for lobster so the interaction is going to be there during the migration season,” he said.

The industry has recently had its export license extended for two years on the condition it takes further steps to reduce whale entanglements.

The DEC says government departments and the rock lobster industry is discussing ways this can be done.

Mr Harrison says a number of options, like changing the sizes of craypots so fewer are in the water, are being considered.

He says along with that, a revised code of practice will remind fishers of the essential basics.

“If they’re coming from deeper water with longer ropes, they need to shorten their ropes so there’s the least amount of rope floating on the surface as possible,” he said.

“If they’re not going to be fishing for an extended period of time, remove their pots from the water.

“And, I guess the most important is just to be vigilant, the whales’ migration season has started.”

Minimise harm

The industry is not keen on removing fishing equipment during migration periods.

Geraldton-based commercial rock lobster fisherman Terry Mouchemore does not think it is necessary.

“Stopping fishing is perhaps a bit of an overkill,” he said.

“If I can draw an analogy to school crossing times: we put measures in place to mitigate the chance of an accident around a school crossing by having lower speeds and signage to make everyone aware that children are going to be crossing roads,” he said.

“We don’t ban cars from the roads for that period and I think banning fishing for the migration period is a bit of overkill.

“But, we certainly need to work up ideas that will lessen any interaction.”

The Conservation Council of WA’s marine coordinator, Tim Nicol, says more needs to be done to prevent harm.

“We need to definitely look at minimising the impact and removing as much as possible the disturbance to whales,” he said.

“They’re certainly valued very highly by the community and are important to WA’s marine environment.

“We need to make sure that as we develop the coast, we ensure the migration occurs and remains one of the really unique aspects of WA’s marine environment.”

The rock lobster fishery was the world’s first to be certified as ecologically sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2000.

According to the Department of Fisheries, the certification process is considered to be the most rigorous and comprehensive independent fisheries assessment in the world.

DEC says there has never been a whale death attributed to rock lobster fishing gear off WA’s coast.

Mr Mouchemore says fishing gear doesn’t always severely impinge on a whale’s health.

“They are large animals, they aren’t particularly troubled by one or two lobster pots hanging off a tail for a period of time because they do get tangled up and free themselves on a fairly regular basis,” he said.

“A whale being such a large animal, if it was to die of such an interaction you’d soon see it – it’d be floating on the surface or being washed up on a beach somewhere.”

He says it’s in the best interest of fishers to try to help the whales migrate north safely.

“We’re obviously concerned about the welfare of the whales and the perception as far as the public are concerned about that interaction,” he said.

“But there’s also a cost to industry given that we lose a lot of valuable fishing gear to our friends, the whales.”

Douglas Coughran says they are working to try to bring the number of tangled whales down to zero but he says their population is currently quite healthy and can withstand a few losses.

“Loss of an individual in a population doesn’t mean the population is going to crash,” he said.

“What it means is it’s a more humane issue with that animal but the objective is to reduce those human-caused mortalities or problems so they’ve got the best chance.

“So, at the end of the day we all want whales to complete their migration and we also want to be able to put food on the table, so we’re working hard to get that happy medium.”

The International Whale Committee says the humpback whale population increased by 9.7 per cent between 1999 and 2008, to roughly 28,800.

New figures are expected to be compiled this season.

From:  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-10/numbers-of-humpback-whales-getting-entangled-increases/4744394?section=wa

Categories: Entangled Marine Mammals, Fishing Lines, Ghost Nets, Whales

Tags: , , , ,

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