Since 1991 whale watchers have spotted Migaloo, possibly the world's only pure white humpback whale, off the Queensland coast each year during its annual migration. But there are real fears that Migaloo's life - along with many other humpback, minke and fin whales - is in danger.
Next month Japan will take a proposal to the International Whaling Commission to more than double its annual hunt of the Antarctic minke whale. Even more disturbing is Japan's plan to resume whaling of threatened populations of fin and humpback whales in the Southern Ocean.
Australia recently celebrated more than 25 years of whale conservation. Only now are we starting to see the recovery of some depleted populations. The Government is finalising comprehensive strategic plans for threatened whales to ensure their long-term protection and recovery.
Southern right and humpback whales are becoming a seasonal highlight as they migrate in growing numbers from the Antarctic to our warmer coastal waters to breed. The song of the humpback is being heard once more.
Australians hold great affection for these creatures and are appalled at the use of science as a cover for the resumption of commercial whaling. The Government, including the Prime Minister, has taken Australia's concerns to the highest levels with Japanese officials in Australia, Japan and at a recent meeting at the UN in New York. While we hope that diplomatic action will help Japan reassess and pull back from its plan, history suggests we cannot be confident.
The difficulty is that most of the Japanese Fisheries Agency's (JFA) proposed whale slaughter is in Australia's Antarctic waters. Intercepting whalers in this area, as a last resort, would raise objections from the many countries that do not recognise Australia's jurisdiction in these waters. It would be a different story if the JFA were to attempt to take whales from recognised Australian waters (such as the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone off Heard and McDonald islands).
The best chance Australia has of stopping the JFA from pursuing its plans is by removing an outdated loophole in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that allows for so-called "scientific" whaling.
At present, the IWC is unable to regulate scientific whaling programs. Under its rules, any member country can issue permits to its own nationals to take as many whales as they specify, ostensibly for the purposes of "science". The proposals may receive harsh criticism within the IWC but the proposing country is under no obligation to answer these or to alter its catch in response.
The JFA has been exploiting this loophole to conduct commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research. It is understood that sales of whale meat produced by scientific whaling amount to more than $60 million a year.
Australia, along with other like-minded IWC-member countries, including the US, Britain and New Zealand, has been working hard to reform the IWC in recent years. Australia in particular has worked to pursue conservation outcomes within the IWC.
This new whaling proposal adds even greater urgency to efforts to amend the convention and remove the loophole that allows scientific whaling.
The IWC has already declared the Southern Ocean to be a sanctuary from commercial whaling. This sanctuary is directly undermined by the JFA's scientific whaling program, which targets the Southern Ocean minke, fin and humpback whales.
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