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Throwing whales to the sharks

The Age

September 30 2002

The harpoon brought them close to extinction. Now whales run a new, murderous gauntlet strung along the Australian coast, writes Andrew Darby.

The net was originally a 186-metre length of tough, braided cord mesh anchored to the sea floor just offshore from Palm Beach on the Gold Coast. Then the humpbacks came. Reports were confused at first. It seemed that only one whale had blundered into the deadly curtain. Would-be rescuers struggled for six hours to cut it free before bad weather made them quit.

By then the maddened mammal had hauled the shark net nearly a kilometre. The whale disappeared, apparently drowned in a tangle of net, ropes, anchor chains and buoys.

The true extent of the incident only emerged four days later. The body of a week-old humpback calf floated pathetically to the surface near the net site. The same day an adult humpback was reported "towing gear" 60 nautical miles south, near Lennox Head, NSW.

The harpoon is long gone from Australia and the reappearance of whales in our harbours and coastlines is cause for celebration, and is earning millions of tourist dollars. But there is increasing evidence that as their numbers increase, and as we press the ocean's resources, we are again killing whales.

This week Australia gained protection for seven whale species under the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species. At a meeting in Bonn, the UN catalogued the threats whales now face. Apart from whaling itself, it included chemical and noise pollution, collision with ships, ocean debris, and entanglement in fishing gear.

In the past 17 months, rescuers in three states have dealt with nine cases of entanglement involving 10 whales. According to state authorities, at least four of these died. And they are the cases we know about. Scientists believe most entanglements are never seen. The whale either frees itself, or succumbs to drowning or shark attack.

Australians face huge fines and imprisonment for deliberately harming whales, yet when it comes to death by entanglement there is no coordinated national response. Rather, the lives of entangled whales depend on good luck, a few well-trained state rescue teams, or risky amateur bravery.

The humpback discovered "towing gear" in Queensland earlier this month was one of the lucky ones. After six days of struggling through the ocean it was near exhaustion off Yamba, on the NSW north coast, when rescuers reached it.

A team from the Gold Coast Sea World and the Queensland Fisheries Department was guided to the whale by a television news helicopter. Striking TV footage showed divers freeing the giant of the heavy tangle it had dragged nearly 100 nautical miles.

That humpback was lucky, but other great whales around Australia still die in extreme distress. Last year, tourists at the Head of the Bight marine park, west of Ceduna in South Australia, spotted a right whale with an orange buoy and rope around its tail. Local authorities tried to organise a rescue attempt as people watched sharks close in, and then attack.

"It was just a terrible way to go," says Ross Belcher, the park's director.

An examination of the dead whale revealed the gear was of the kind used by
Japanese or Korean longline fishermen. "This was a very sad story," says Belcher. "It had obviously been entangled well outside Australian waters, then killed here."

At least that right whale was seen. Right whale specialist Dr Stephen Burnell says: "I suspect most entanglements are never observed. The range of these whales, and the fact that they migrate . . . suggests entanglements within Australian waters and also international waters from longlines and drift nets."

Global trends in entanglement of whales and dolphins are alarming. The United States World Wildlife Fund released research in August claiming 60,000 cetaceans are killed annually by destructive fishing practices around the world. These practices are also sending some populations towards extinction.

There are just 300 Western North Atlantic right whales left and scientists Amy Knowlton and Scott Kraus of New England Aquarium say serious injuries and deaths from ship strikes and entanglements are increasing, as the population falls. Of the 56 known cases of death or serious injury during the past 30 years, more than half were caused by entanglement.

In Australia, there are no indications that whale numbers are threatened by the lines, nets and pots we throw in the water to catch fish. Indeed, humpback and right whale numbers are booming. One of the globe's most endangered whales, and also the largest, the blue whale, has been found in the same western Victorian waters as cray fishermen without known entanglement.

Instead, the problem is more a case of the horrifying damage artificial objects can inflict upon these creatures. Sea World's Trevor Long says: "This is not a conservation issue. This is an animal welfare issue that we have control over."

West Australian whale rescuer Doug Coughran has dealt with 21 entanglements over the years. He counts the problems of a yearling humpback he reached last December as among the most heart-wrenching he has ever seen. The youngster had wrestled itself to an exhausted standstill with ropes around its mouth and head. Four tiger sharks were circling. "They'd already taken off seven eighths of one pectoral fin," Coughran says.Gingerly, he stepped from a boat on to the whale's head to cut away some ropes. "We were able to read its body language, and it allowed us to do that." The whale was freed, but without most of one wing-like fin, its prospects must have been poor.

Most contentious of the whale snaring objects are shark nets fixed off east coast swimming beaches. Year-round there are 11 nets off Queensland beaches. In New South Wales, 49 beaches between Newcastle and Wollongong are netted from September to April.

The Queensland program is under attack because of increasing humpback entanglements as these whales swim close inshore on a migratory route past premium tourist real estate.

Griffith University head of environmental science Clyde Wylde has been trying to convince the Queensland Government that nets are not needed because of the minuscule risk of shark attack and the resilience of the tourism industry. But Queensland Primary Industries Minister Henry Palaszczuk says this is not possible "unless we can be assured safety to swimmers is not compromised".