Vessel exclusion zone debate continues

MOTHER & CALF: Southern Right Whale mother Yapari with a young calf, pictured in Encounter Bay. Photo: Supplied.
MOTHER & CALF: Southern Right Whale mother Yapari with a young calf, pictured in Encounter Bay. Photo: Supplied.

Debate has continued following Alexandrina Council's decision to support a motorised vessel exclusion zone between the Hindmarsh River Mouth and the Murray River Mouth during whale season from May 1 to October 31, in an effort to protect endangered, calving Southern Right Whales.

Councillors voted 9-2 in favour of a vessel exclusion zone with an exception for emergency services only and council administration will write to the State Government who ultimately hold decision making powers over such a move. Community consultation on the issue took place between February 4 and March 1 this year, before Councillors voted at the last council meeting.

The backing of a motorised vessel exclusion zone follows growing concerns from local groups and whale experts on the impact of boats on endangered Southern Right Whales who travel to the area to calve.

These concerns centre around the disturbance caused by motorised vessels to whale mothers and young calves, which experts say risks scaring off whales from returning to the area and causing potential vessel strikes.

When voting on the proposal, a majority of Alexandrina Councillors were of the opinion that risks to stopping the flow of whales to the area would have an adverse impact on the regional tourism industry - which relies heavily on the influx of 400,000 whale watching visitors per-year, during the winter months.

Proposed motorised vessel exclusion zone.

Proposed motorised vessel exclusion zone.

Whale experts have their say

According to Dr Catherine Kemper, Senior Researcher, South Australian Museum, there is strong evidence for the implementation of greater protections for whales in addition to those currently imposed on the Encounter Bay Restricted Area, which requires that all vessels engaged in observing marine mammals (motorised and non-motorised) must not move closer than 300 metres to a whale or calf.

In a submission to Alexandrina Council, Dr Kemper said that while restrictions were already in place, Southern Right Whales are often submerged and out of sight, particularly if they are already disturbed and were particularly sensitive to disturbance by humans.

"Like other mammals, including humans, this is a critical time of development because the newborns do not have the physical ability or intellectual experience to deal with threats," she said.

"Threats can be acute (e.g. sharks, vessel collisions) and cause serious injury or death or they can be more subtle and chronic (e.g. noise, harassment, habitat degradation) and lead to abandonment of the calving site.

"Even acts that appear to be tolerated by the whale, and within the whale-watching guidelines, can be detrimental to a mother and calf because they disturb the natural rhythm of nursing. There are documented cases of females with calves having left the Encounter Bay calving site following incidents with motorised vessels."

This is a view supported by Mandy Watson, a Southern Right Whale expert from Warrnambool in Victoria, where a seasonal vessel exclusion zone has been in place since 2001.

"Chronic disturbance arising from vessel activity including boat-based whale watching and personal watercraft can cause [Southern Right Whales] to avoid important habitat areas," she said.

"Pregnant females and females with newborn calves are highly susceptible to vessel strike and noise disturbance."

Ms Watson said as Southern Right Whales prefer warmer, shallow waters while calving, it made them an ideal species for land-based whale watching.

"Whale watching tourism at Warrnambool is exclusively land-based. A seasonal vessel exclusion zone has been in place at Logan's Beach since 2001 and has proven to be highly successful in providing the opportunity for the public to observe Southern Right Whales in close proximity without charge and without having any detrimental impact on the whales," said Ms Watson.

"While there is no charge to the public to view the whales, the estimated value to the local Warrnambool economy arising from this activity has been estimated to be in excess of one million dollars per whale."

Whale Nursery: An aerial shot showing the whale nursery area between Port Elliot and the Murray Mouth. Photo: Andy Alford.

Whale Nursery: An aerial shot showing the whale nursery area between Port Elliot and the Murray Mouth. Photo: Andy Alford.

Local tour operators hit back

This is not an assessment supported by local tour boat operator Michael Veenstra (Big Duck Boat Tours) who said he was disappointed in the decision of the Alexandrina Council to recommend the exclusion zone to the State Government "without any scientific fact or evidence that vessels were scaring off whales."

Mr Veenstra said a motorised vessel exclusion zone would have a serious impact on his business and result in local job losses.

"It would effectively end my whale watching business, as any sightings outside the proposed exclusion area would be opportunistic at best," he said.

"We in all good faith could not advertise 'Whale Watching Tours' which is 50 percent of my business."

Mr Veenstra said he had already begun lobbying State Government MPs and Ministers against the move and believed that current restrictions were adequate.

He also suggested that whale numbers were on the increase and that there had not been incidents of disturbance or vessel strikes in the proposed zone.

"We self-impose a speed limit on our vessel when operating in the proposed area and would be happy to have that as part of our Marine Mammal permit. We also have an open-ended invitation to Marine Parks to join us on any of our Whale Watching cruises.

"We believe that education, not exclusion, is a better policy. On board the Big Duck we provide commentary to over 10,000 people per year not only on Southern Right Whales, but all marine mammals."

Mr Veenstra also raised concerns for local surf lifesaving clubs and recreational fishers and has since launched an online petition against the introduction of a motorised vessel exclusion zone, which has over 1150 supporters at the time of writing.

Tony and Phyll Bartram of Kangaroo Island/Victor Harbor Dolphin Watch said they supported Big Duck Boat Tours.

"We believe Big Duck Boat Tours play an integral part in the protection of the whales and dolphins in Encounter Bay through their on water vigilance and excellent education program, providing scientists, conservationists, residents and visitors with a wonderful experience of the marine environment, thus encouraging them all to develop a sense of caring and stewardship.

"We are fully mindful of the critical state of the South-eastern population of the Southern Right whales which visit our waters whose numbers are estimated to be below 300, making them the most highly endangered population of Baleen whales in the world, but it is cooperative efforts which are needed to ensure their survival.

"A much more rigorous approach is needed to fully explore the matters at hand and other relevant issues. We cannot simply rely on a handful of peoples' interpretations of observations they have made.

"Wider community involvement is vital now and into the future to protect these magnificent mammals."

Effects on Surf Lifesaving 

Local surf lifesaving clubs Chiton Rocks, Port Elliot and Goolwa, would also be affected by the potential introduction of a motorised vessel exclusion zone, which would limit their ability to train and operate in the area during the winter months.

As voted on by Alexandrina Council, the proposal of support put forward to State Government for consideration would however, include an exemption for emergency situations.

Surf Lifesaving SA was contacted for comment but did not respond by the time of publication.

Encounter Whales

A spokesperson from local conservation group Encounter Whales, Elizabeth Steele-Collins, presented the original deputation to Alexandrina Council in 2018 which resulted in Council undertaking public consultation on the issue.

An additional deputation on the issue was made by Ms Steele-Collins to the City of Victor Harbor at the council meeting held on February 25, 2019.

Ms Steele-Collins said Encounter Whales was not against boating, fishing or eco-tour boats; but were for "the whales, in particular the mothers and calves in their nursery area."

"Encounter Bay contains one of only three recognised whale nursery areas in SA and we are blessed that it is right here on our doorstep," she said.

"There is strong evidence the current guidelines are not adequate for a whale calving and nursery area.

"Whales are capable of hearing motorised vessel noise kilometres from the source. The closer the vessels come, the more it interferes with whale communication and creates stress and anxiety as demonstrated in documented changes to whale behaviour.

"Mothers with calves are particularly sensitive to this and need to be provided with an area where they can be at ease to give birth and feed/raise their young."

City of Victor Harbor's response

The City of Victor Harbor was contacted for comment on the issue and a spokesperson said, "Council doesn't have a comment relating to the decision of Alexandrina Council."

"We already have a personal water craft exclusion zone in place in Encounter Bay from 1 May to 30 September each year."

However, during the City of Victor Harbor's council meeting on February 25, Councillors debated a number of motions regarding the issue.

A motion was carried that "Council receive and note the report and correspondence received from Alexandrina Council in relation to a possible motorised vessel exclusion zone between the Hindmarsh River Mouth and the Murray Mouth."

A second motion was carried unanimously with Council acknowledging "the importance of whale conservation while balancing against community expectations for access to the coastal environment for recreational purposes."

A third motion concerning a proposal for the City of Victor Harbor to "provide a response to the Alexandrina Council's Motorised Vessel Exclusion Zone Public Consultation" with a number of suggestions lapsed, before a final motion that "the City of Victor Harbor inform Alexandrina Council that the City of Victor Harbor has a Personal Watercraft Restricted Area in place," was carried.

Existing restrictions 

Encounter Bay and Victor Harbor Restricted Areas. Photo: South Australian Whale Centre.

Encounter Bay and Victor Harbor Restricted Areas. Photo: South Australian Whale Centre.

The Victor Harbor Personal Watercraft Restricted Area extends from Kings Head across to the southern points of West Island, and east towards the Murray Mouth to a point where it meets the boundary between the City of Victor Harbor and Alexandrina Council.

The Victor Harbor Restriction Zone is for personal water craft and jet ski operators who are prohibited from launching or operating their vessels within this zone from May 1 to September 30. Even if a jet ski is launched outside the zone, it cannot enter this area.

The maximum penalty for failure to comply is $1,250. Signs at local launching ramps highlight the restriction.

The Encounter Bay Restricted Area is 1.5 kilometres west of Kings Head, and goes across to a point at the high water mark near the Goolwa Beach car park. It also takes in a further nautical mile south east and the Kings Head point, which is beyond and includes the waters around West Island.

In both areas, a person who is in control of a vessel must not move it closer than 300 metres to a whale.

Key protections for whales under the National Parks and Wildlife (Protected Animals - Marine Mammals) Regulations 2010 (SA) can be 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.