Australia is a world leader for the protection and conservation of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).
Australia stopped whaling in 1979 and, since then, has been a global advocate for cetacean conservation. Our leadership has directly contributed to a whaling-free Southern Ocean.
Although commercial whaling has ceased in Australian waters, cetaceans face ongoing cumulative threats from climate change, vessel strike, marine pollution, coastal and offshore infrastructure development, underwater anthropogenic noise, unregulated wildlife tourism, entanglement and being caught in commercial fishing gear, known as ‘fisheries bycatch’.
Australia’s international policy objectives for cetacean conservation are to:
- Uphold the global moratorium on commercial whaling and ensure the International Whaling Commission remains a strong and stable organisation;
- Protect cetaceans that rely on Australian waters from other threats throughout their global range, and;
- Safeguard the Southern Ocean as critical habitat for cetacean species.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) and global moratorium on commercial whaling
During the 19th and 20th centuries, commercial whaling brought many whale species to the brink of extinction. To address this, in 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and manage the development of the whaling industry. There were 15 original signatories to the Convention – all whaling nations at that time, including Australia. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the decision making body responsible for implementing the Convention. The IWC has 88 members. Australia's IWC Commissioner is Dr Nick Gales.
The whaling convention recognises three types of whaling: commercial, special permit (or ‘scientific’), and First Nations or aboriginal subsistence whaling. First Nations whaling to support nutritional and subsistence needs is the only form supported by Australia.
In 1982, the IWC agreed to a global moratorium on commercial whaling, which came into effect in 1986. The moratorium has been extremely successful in ensuring the recovery of some populations of whales, while some other populations remain at historically low levels. Australia continues to work closely with other countries to make sure the moratorium stays in place. Unfortunately, despite the moratorium, some countries still undertake commercial whaling.
Japan previously carried out an annual so-called ‘scientific’ whaling program in the Southern Ocean. Australia argued that this was in fact a commercial whaling operation and in 2010 initiated legal action against Japan in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ delivered its judgment in the case concerning Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v Japan: New Zealand intervening) on Monday, 31 March 2014. The Court found that the grant of permits under Japan’s Southern Ocean whaling program, JARPA II, was illegal as it could not be justified as being for the purposes of scientific research under Article VIII of the Convention. As a result, the Court ordered that Japan cease JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits under that program.
Additional information on the judgment is available from the Attorney-General’s Department.
Japan withdrew from the International Convention from the Regulation of Whaling on 1 July 2019. Since then, Japan has resumed commercial whaling in its Exclusive Economic Zone but made a commitment to Australia that it will not return to Southern Ocean whaling.
IWC Cetacean Science and Australia’s role
The IWC’s work is underpinned by scientific research on cetacean biology and ecology. The IWC’s scientific agenda improves our understanding of the nature and scale of threats that global whale populations face, and the conservation agenda includes management considerations for whale watching, vessel strike and many other issues.
Australia is engaged in a range of IWC committees and working groups, including chairing the Budgetary Sub-committee and Standing Working Group on Conservation Management Plans. These plans provide a framework for two or more countries to work together to address threats to the most vulnerable cetacean populations. There are plans in place for five cetacean populations – you can read about them on the Commission's website: Conservation Management Plans.
Southern Ocean Research Partnership
Australia is the initiator and a strong supporter of the IWC’s Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP), established in 2009. SORP is an integrated, collaborative consortium for cetacean research, which aims to maximise conservation-orientated outcomes for Southern Ocean cetaceans.
SORP is developing, testing and implementing non-lethal scientific methods to estimate the abundance and distribution of whales and describe their role in the Antarctic ecosystem. This work has repeatedly demonstrated that whales do not need to be killed in order to study them.
The SORP Secretariat is hosted by the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, part of the Australian Antarctic Division, which focuses on understanding, protecting and conserving the whales, dolphins, seals and dugongs in our region.
Minke Whales off Davis station in Antarctica (Photo: Frederique Oliver)
Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS)
The Convention aims to conserve terrestrial, marine and avian migratory species and their habitats. Australia became a party to the Convention in 1991 and is also a signatory to a number of agreements and memoranda of understanding developed under the Convention, including the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific Islands Region.
- Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific Islands Region
Six of the ten whale species listed on Appendix I of the CMS are found in the Southern Hemisphere. Appendix I lists migratory species that are in danger of extinction throughout all, or a significant proportion of, their range.
Five great whale species listed on Appendix II of the CMS are also found in the Southern Hemisphere. Appendix II lists migratory species that have an unfavourable conservation status or would benefit significantly from international cooperation.
For Appendix II species, range states must endeavour to conclude international agreements aimed at benefiting the species, giving priority to those with an unfavourable conservation status.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 requires that any species that occurs in Australia and is included in either of the Conventions’ appendices must be listed as a migratory species for the purposes of the Act. There are 18 whale and dolphin species that occur in Australian waters listed in the appendices. Therefore, they are listed as migratory species under the Act.