The big comeback: it’s time to declare victory for Australian humpback whale conservation

Written by: Michelle Bejder, , and for The Conversation

When it comes to conservation, good news is pretty thin on the ground – and the ocean, for that matter. We have grown much more used to hearing about marine species that face extinction, decline or negative impacts than about those that are thriving. But if we are to avoid getting demoralised, conservation biology needs victories to celebrate.

So here’s one: the remarkable recovery of humpback whales that breed in Australian waters. Our review of the available data, published today in Marine Policy, suggests that humpback whale populations in Australian waters have recovered to the extent that we should consider downlisting them from the official list of threatened species.

The humpback whale should be a cause for optimism and hope. It’s an important counterbalance to the seemingly relentless communication of marine conservation problems with little in the way of good news. We hope this kind of optimism will convince politicians and the public that conservation problems can indeed be solved, and to stay dedicated to making that happen.

Turning the tide

Australia has one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. But despite this, the past decade has seen rare examples of animals that are rebounding and thriving.

Humpback whales are one such example. They are listed as “vulnerable” on Australia’s official list of threatened species, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

But our review, led by Michelle Bejder of BMT Oceanica and based on the best available scientific data, suggests that humpback whales no longer need to be on the EPBC Act’s Threatened Species list. Both the east and west Australia populations of humpback whales have recovered substantially from the damage done in the commercial whaling era (roughly from 1912 to 1972).

As of 2012, Australia’s east coast humpback population was at 63% of the pre-whaling-era level. The west coast population had bounced back to 90%. Australian humpback whale populations are increasing at remarkable rates: 9% a year for the west coast population and 10% a year for the east coast – the fastest documented increases worldwide.

A recent global assessment of humpback whales suggested that nine populations from around the world (including the east and west Australian populations) are no longer at risk of extinction. This is to be expected when exploitation through commercial whaling is replaced with conservation legislation (both in Australia and worldwide). Though we don’t quite fully understand the biological forces driving this extraordinary population increase, it’s fair to say that the removal of the dominant negative human pressure has been a huge factor.

On the rise: humpback whale populations are rebounding at a startling rate. Ari S. Friedlaender (under NMFS permit), Author provided
Click to enlarge

We believe that conservation biologists have a responsibility to protect species that are in peril by providing a sound, scientific basis for effective management. It therefore follows that we also have a responsibility to present information on recovering populations. The listing of threatened species under the EPBC Act is a dynamic process that is periodically assessed to determine the most appropriate management actions – so if species no longer needs to be on the list we should say so.

The future challenge will be to protect a marine environment that contains growing humpback whale populations and to develop alternative approaches to ecological sustainability. The history of environmental protection is based on saving depleted species, with very little guidance on how to manage recovering and recovered ones.

If humpback whales are downlisted from the threatened species list, the EPBC Act would still protect them from significant impacts because migratory species are deemed under the Act to be nationally significant. Beyond Australia, the International Whaling Commission manages the global moratorium on commercial whaling, which is essential for the humpback whales’ recovery to continue.

Management efforts must now balance the need to ensure humpback whale growth and recovery within a marine environment that is also expanding with industrial and exploration activities. There will be increases in interactions with ocean users, including acoustic disturbance from noise, collisions with vessels, entanglements in fishing gear, habitat destruction from coastal development, and interactions with the whale-watching industry. It will be vital to gain public support to help maintain the growth and recovery of Australian humpback whales and prevent future population declines.

Ocean optimism

The recovered humpback whale population could bring a positive shift in scientific research throughout Australia. If Australian humpback whales are removed from the list of threatened species, one of the most beneficial consequences could be the reprioritisation of research and funding to support other species that are at a greater risk.

Hopefully, other animal species such as the threatened blue whale, the understudied Australian snubfin and Australian humpback dolphins might get the same chance of scientific scrutiny that has been afforded to humpback whales.

For the first time in more than a generation, Australia’s iconic humpback whales have become a symbol of both hope and optimism for marine conservation, providing a unique opportunity to celebrate successful scientific and management actions that protect marine species. Optimism in conservation biology (which even has its own social media hashtag, #OceanOptimism) is essential to encourage politicians and the public to solve conservation problems.

Around the world, many marine mammal populations remain in peril, and conservation biologists should not detract from these cases. But we should still highlight the successes, as they provide hope that ongoing conservation actions can prevail. Ultimately, inspirational examples such as humpback whales can motivate people to use ocean resources wisely and to take sustainable and effective actions to safeguard marine wildlife for the future.

Related links:

Embracing conservation success of recovering humpback whale populations: Evaluating the case for downlisting their conservation status in Australia, Marine Policy review

Attention whale watchers: scientists want your snaps


New marine facility at Waterman’s Bay to put WA in the lead

Life and the environment in and around the Waterman’s Bay shoreline on Perth’s northern beaches will soon be available to explore in real-time with an ambitious project to couple observations from the seafloor, sea surface and the atmosphere, and link scientists with the public and industry.

Project coordinator Dr Jeff Hansen from The University of Western Australia’s Ocean’s Institute and School of Earth and Environment has a penchant for the physical side of life, surf zone currents and sediment transport, but he believes the new Waterman’s Bay Nearshore Observatory could be used to explore much more, from conducting experiments relating to marine chemistry to monitoring marine life and collecting long-term records of ocean properties.

Dr Hansen said the location of the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre (IOMRC) Waterman’s Bay Facility directly on the water’s edge presents a tremendous opportunity to study and monitor the surrounding ocean.

“The building provides a unique platform from which we can collect a vast range of observations in real-time” he said. 

A key element of the observatory is that all data, real-time and archived, will be made available free online. In addition to providing data relevant to individual scientists, the observatory will supply information needed to make decisions relating to marine safety, coastal zone management, and marine resource management, as well as providing data to the public for recreational and educational purposes.

“We’re trying to cast a broad net and invite industry partners who may have a range of applications for the observatory infrastructure” Dr Hansen said. “We want to design the observatory infrastructure to be as flexible as possible to meet the requirements of a wide variety of users for many years to come.”  

The project, a major new initiative proposed by the UWA Oceans Institute and the IOMRC partners, will provide a new undersea observatory facility to be used for fundamental oceanographic research, monitoring the physical, chemical, and biological process occurring in Perth’s metropolitan coastal waters, and for marine technology development and trials.

It will include a range of infrastructure and instrumentation that will enable remote control of instruments and monitoring of data streams. The observations delivered by the facility will provide a detailed view of the coastal ocean, unrivalled elsewhere in Australia, while supplying a diversity of data relevant to science, marine safety, coastal management, industry, and to the public.

The project has been planned in two stages: in Phase 1 the roof of the newly refurbished Waterman’s Bay facility will be equipped with a weather station and seaward-directed video camera to provide continuous images of sea state and hourly georeferenced shorelines of the adjacent beach. These observations will be coupled with wave, water level and temperature measurements collected by a submerged sensor about 150 metres off the beach connected by a cable running into the building.

Phase 2 (subject to funding) is the installation of an eight kilometre fibre optic and power cable from the facility out to a depth of 25 metres that will support more than 100 underwater instruments  in addition to a directional wave buoy that will provide real time observations of sea state. 

Bathymetric chart of the Waterman’s Bay Marine Centre facility region, showing the proposed locations of the Observatory undersea nodes (red starts) and buoy (yellow circle), and approximate cable-run (dashed line).

“The most ambitious part of the project is getting the cable from the building to eight kilometres offshore ” Dr Hansen said. 

Prior to coming to UWA, Dr Hansen worked in the US including at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“A lot of other marine laboratories around the world have undersea observatories and they have proven to be an extremely powerful resource for community engagement and research,” he said.

Interested parties, from all sectors and organisations, are invited to contact Jeff Hansen at the UWA Oceans Institute with expressions of interest in this initiative.

“By providing information about envisaged usage, we will be able to design the infrastructure to meet the requirements of the maximum number of stakeholders,” Dr Hansen said.

The project anticipates that access to the Waterman’s Bay Facility for the installation of the weather station and video camera will be possible in the coming months. The Phase 1 undersea instrumentation is expected to be up and running by early next year.

Coral embryos make next-gen mucous cocoons

By Gerard Ricardo, UWA

The phenomenon we call ‘coral spawning’ actually involves five primary early life-history stages, from the release of the egg-sperm bundle, fertilisation, embryogenesis, larval development until finally settlement – each with their own challenges to the impacts of sediment.

The development of the coral embryo occurs on the water’s surface and lasts about 36 hours from the point of fertilisation until the larvae become free-swimming. During this time, the embryos are part of a coral spawn slick, a buoyant slurry of sperm, fertilised and decomposing unfertilised eggs…it gives a smell that takes a while to get used to.

When we exposed the embryos to suspended sediment, we noticed an interesting response that took us a bit by surprise. The embryos cocooned themselves in a mucous sac which sunk to the bottom of the chamber. Within the confines of safety, the embryo maintained development until ciliation (fine-like hairs used for swimming). When the larvae were moved to clean sediment-free water, the larvae could be seen rotating within the cocoon and eventually would rupture and emerge from it – hardly a beautiful butterfly but amazing nonetheless.

Scanning electron micrographs of the mucous cocoon. Coloured backscatter image of an embryo with part of the mucous cocoon removed (left). Orange = sediment, purple = embryo and mucus. Inset A) Mucous web observed under secondary electron mode B) Sediment grains observed under backscatter electron mode.

Once ciliated, the larvae seem to pretty capable of deflecting sediment grains with their new energy-efficient brooms, but while they are embryos, mucous cocooning maybe the only mechanism they have to protect against abrasive and sticky sediment grains. Overall, early-life stages of corals can be very sensitive to sediment, but for these two development stages, mucous cocooning and cilia beating bring a welcome reprieve.

The progression of the coral embryos through the cocoon formation stage



Ricardo GF, Jones RJ, Clode PL, Negri AP (2016) Mucous Secretion and Cilia Beating Defend Developing Coral Larvae from Suspended Sediments. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0162743. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162743


The WAMSI Dredging Science Node is made possible through $9.5 million invested by Woodside, Chevron and BHP as environmental offsets. A further $9.5 million has been co-invested by the WAMSI Joint Venture partners, adding significantly more value to this initial industry investment. The node is also supported through critical data provided by Chevron, Woodside and Rio Tinto Iron Ore.


Dredging Science

Lost coastline found in WA Department of Transport

Over the years government agencies, and industry for that matter, amass a huge amount of survey information in the process of completing individual projects. It’s information that invariably never sees the light of day again. But one project team working with the Department of Transport (DoT), Fremantle has brought together an extraordinary online picture of how the Western Australian coastline has changed over the last 140 years.

The Managing Coastal Vulnerability Project (MCV) project manager Ralph Talbot-Smith and his team have spent the last 18 months organising some of the Department’s maritime spatial information into coherent and cohesive datasets that work for researchers, managers and the general public.

Lost coastline: Jurien Bay Coastline Movements 1875-2000

“What we’re finding is everything is related to everything,” Mr Talbot-Smith said. “The coastline changes a huge amount over a short period of time.  Although some records date back to 1875, the majority start from the 1940s and even from then you can still see changes in the undulating coastline, some places a lot greater than others.

“The coastline changes but probably the habitat changes as well. So a change in seagrass beds may be related to coastline changes but unless we have this in data available we can’t make those comparisons. The Department of Transport has opened up this door and people are starting see the importance and the potential.

Coastline Movements 1941-2009 along Geographe Bay Road, Busselton

“The biggest dataset was the Hydrographic Bathymetric data which took six months to convert 1000 DoT surveys to a standard horizontal datum. Then we converted all surveys from individual chart datum’s to AHD and retained survey metadata before loading it into the Bathymetric Information System (BIS), which is software supplied by ESRI,” Mr Talbot-Smith said.

There are seven data sets that have been compiled over the last 18 months. Now the MCV project team is moving on to do the same job at the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife.

“We’ve tried to future proof the data so that if systems change, the transfer of information is going to be easy,” Mr Talbot-Smith said. “We have also provided detailed documentation and training to the data custodians on the procedures to update and maintain the datasets.”

Ralph Talbot-Smith is now advocating for a central information hub for Coastal & Marine habitats to be established at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre where agencies can have:

  • Individual datasets that can be updated as sampling is expanded.
  • Access to other participants’ data and linked to video and photos in the same hub.
  • Stored data collected by Lidar or multibeam with reflectance and backscatter information.
  • The ability to eventually consolidate combined habitat determinations.

“It’s an idea that, in this resource poor economic climate, makes a lot of sense,” Mr Talbot-Smith said. “It also follows along the Blueprint for Marine Science 2050 direction for a central knowledge hub. I believe it could advance the amount of habitat information and provide 10-times what we have now for Western Australia.”

Hydrographic-Bathymetric Survey

MCV is administered by the Western Australian Land Information System (WALIS) Marine Group as part of the WA Government’s $23-million Location Information Strategy (LIS).  One of the key elements of the LIS is to facilitate access to spatial data through the State’s Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP) with a view that improved information access and simplified distribution is a key component to providing better decision making for the benefit of all West Australians.

Further information:

WAMSI Presentation: Managing Coastal Vulnerability (MCV) Project DoT Fremantle – Marine Data Available Online:  PowerPoint presentation presented by Ralph Talbot-Smith 20th July 2015