Whale nursery protection backed by Alexandrina Council

Whale protection: Yapari with a young calf in South Coast waters. Photo: Elizabeth Steele-Collins.
Whale protection: Yapari with a young calf in South Coast waters. Photo: Elizabeth Steele-Collins.

Alexandrina Council has taken a strong stance on whale protection, with Councillors voting nine to two in support of a motorised vessel exclusion zone between the Hindmarsh River Mouth and the Murray River Mouth, following community consultation on the issue.

The proposed exclusion zone would operate during whale season from May 1 to October 31, establishing a Southern Right Whale Nursery Protection Area in the coastal waters adjacent to Alexandrina Council, where whales come to birth and raise their calves.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the establishment of a motorised vessel exclusion zone as supported (with an exception for emergency services only) lies with the State Government, and Alexandrina Council will now write to the government in support of this action.

Community consultation on the issue was carried out over a four-week period from February 4 to March 1 2019, following an initial deputation to council from local conservation group Encounter Whales, in September 2018.

This deputation requested council support for the establishment of a Whale Nursery Protection Area, for the endangered Southern Right Whale.

Community responses to the proposal of a motorised vessel exclusion zone were varied, and a total of 1,226 submissions were received during the public consultation period.

Of these responses, 311 were from the Alexandrina area (25%), 258 were from the Victor Harbor area (21%) and 657 were from areas outside the region (54%).

The submissions received from outside the region were mostly from the Adelaide metropolitan area with a small number of submissions coming from interstate.

Of the submissions received, 55 percent offered their support for the proposal whilst 44 percent were against.

In addition, Encounter Whales submitted a petition of 2784 signatures in support of the proposal.

During debate in the council chamber on Monday May 20, concerns over the affect of the exclusion zone on local tour boat operators, as well as surf lifesaving clubs and the impact on their ability to train during the winter period were raised by Councillors Carter and Rebbeck.

"I believe that the tour operators are very responsible people," said Councillor Carter. "It is in their interest that there are more whales."

Councillor Rebbeck was of the opinion that surf lifesaving clubs could operate in the area responsibly, but did not necessarily see the need for tour boats to operate in the area.

"It's really important that people are trained to provide the safety of people during the summertime," she said, in reference to the fact that the proposal would not allow lifesaving clubs to operate in the Protection Area during whale season.

However, a majority of Councillors viewed greater protections of whales "as paramount," with many arguing that the increased protections for whales would also protect the huge tourism industry associated with whale watching in the region.

"The more whales and calves, the more tourists we are going to get," said Councillor Gardner. "If we protect that area better we are going to get more returning whales. I think this is going to be advantageous for us."

Councillor Scott said "it was an opportunity to put the environment first" and noted the significance of the whale nursery for the region, as well as its extreme sensitivity.

"What we have here is one of those extraordinarily rare circumstances," he said, in reference to Southern Right Whales travelling to the area to calve.

"If it were a human being and they'd just had a baby, they would not be disturbed," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, the best place to view them [whales] is from the coastline."

The motion that "Council administration write to State Government in support of a motorised vessel exclusion zone for 1 May - 31 October as consulted (i.e.with an exception for emergency services only)" was carried nine votes to two.

Councillors Scott, Bradford, Coomans, Lewis, Keily, Maidment, Gardner, Farrier and Rebbeck voted in the affirmative, while Councillors Stewart and Carter voted against the proposal.

Endangered Species

The Southern Right Whale is listed as endangered under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The Australian Government's 2011-2021 Conservation Management Plan for the Southern Right Whale contains an objective that domestic legislation supporting the recovery of the species be maintained and where possible improved by 2021.

The level of priority given to maintaining and improving existing legal and management protection is rated as Very High and The Conservation Management Plan also identifies vessel disturbance as a known threat and noise interference as a potential threat to the Southern Right Whale population.

The Plan indicates that chronic disturbance from activities such as boat-based whale watching and personal watercraft can disrupt whale behaviour and lead to avoidance of important habitat areas.

Existing protections

Key protections for whales under the National Parks and Wildlife (Protected Animals - Marine Mammals) Regulations 2010 (SA) are summarised as follows:

Jet skis must not move closer than 300 metres to a whale in all SA waters; Outside of the Encounter Bay Restricted Area, other vessels engaged in observing marine mammals (motorised and non-motorised) must not move closer than 100 metres to a whale or closer than 300 metres to a calf.

Within the Encounter Bay Restricted Area all vessels engaged in observing marine mammals (motorised and non-motorised) must not move closer than 300 metres to a whale or calf.

Swimmers (which includes a person using a bodyboard, boogie board or surfboard) must not move closer than 30m to a whale or closer than 300 metres to a calf.

The Encounter Bay Restricted Area extended from Newland Head Conservation Park to the west of the Bluff through to Beach Road at Goolwa Beach.

Misinformed voting

According to the Alexandrina's council agenda released prior to the meeting, a number of no-votes within the community consultation period "erroneously assumed that the proposed Nursery Protection Area would be concurrent with the full extent of the existing Encounter Bay Restricted Area which extends from Newland Head Conservation Park to the west of the Bluff, through to Beach Road at Goolwa Beach."

Because of this, a number of no votes were submitted on the erroneous assumption that the proposal would adversely impact use of the Encounter Bay Boat Ramp.

There are no public boat ramps within the proposed Nursery Protection Area.