You’d be forgiven for thinking that the very existence of national environmental laws creates an obligation on Environment Ministers to protect the environment. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Instead, their obligations are limited by the objects and duties that are specified in the law. And in the case of our...
Humpback whales have had their threatened status removed under Australia’s national environment legislation today, following their strong recovery since commercial whaling ended in the mid 20th century.
Significant conservation effort has gone into humpback whale population recovery, and successive Australian governments can take credit for their leadership role in stopping commercial whaling. These achievements should be celebrated, say conservation organisation Humane Society International, but they also worry the celebrations will be short-lived.
Humpback whales are facing serious threats due to climate change and the profound ecosystem changes that are predicted. Scientists are concerned a decline in the abundance of krill in the whale’s Antarctic feeding grounds could reverse whale recovery and, on current climate trajectories, we could see sharp declines in humpback population numbers later this century1.
Alexia Wellbelove, Senior Campaign Manager for Humane Society International, says, “Humpback whales have shown remarkable recovery in the almost 60 years since whaling ended. The decision to delist humpback whales follows this strong recovery, but we are concerned it may prove to be short-sighted in the face of looming climate impacts and very worrying predictions. We are so appreciative of the concerted efforts undertaken to recover humpback whale populations, we would hate to see those efforts wasted by jumping the gun and removing the whale’s threatened status.
“Whales are threatened not only by climate change but also other worsening threats such as entanglements in fishing gear, plastic and other pollution, ship strikes and noise disturbance. HSI hopes to see ongoing monitoring of humpback whale populations and swift restoration of their threatened status should the data indicate it is required.”
Humpback whales will still receive some legal protections, despite no longer being considered a threatened species, and the Australian Government must continue to be vigilant to all threats whales face including taking greater action to address climate change.
 Tulloch, VJD, Plagányi, ÉE, Brown, C, Richardson, AJ, Matear, R. Future recovery of baleen whales is imperiled by climate change. Glob Change Biol. 2019; 25: 1263– 1281. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14573