Environment and Science Minister Judy Edwards today marked Threatened Species Day by announcing there would be new distance limits set for spectators watching female whales and their calves which come in close to shore.
“I have asked the Department of Conservation and Land Management to prepare amended rules in relation to how close people can approach whale mothers and their calves, following events of the past week or so,” Dr Edwards said.
Currently, a legislative notice under the Wildlife Conservation Act restricts swimmers to a least 30m while boats, kayaks and canoes must stay at least 100m away, with penalties of up to $10,000 for people who disturb whales by approaching closer.
“In the past week we have seen a southern right whale and her calf being harassed off Perth beaches by swimmers, paddlers and surfers as the mother fed her calf in shallow water, at times less than 50 metres from shore,” the Minister said.
“The impact on the whales, including apparently forcing them to move elsewhere, has signaled that tougher and more easily interpreted rules are required.
“For the safety of everyone involved, I am proposing that if a mother and her calf are within 100m off the shore, then swimmers must maintain a distance of at least 100m from both the mother and calf.
“People in boats or on kayaks, surfboards or canoes or similar craft, must stay at least 200m away from both whales.
“In simple terms, if a whale and calf are less than 100m from the shore, watch them only from the shore and do not approach them in the water at all.”
In one instance last week, a mother whale and calf were disturbed just north of Mindarie beach by two men in a dinghy which came between the pair.
“We have had some real concerns that with all the constant close attention the mother might abandon her newborn,” Dr Edwards said.
“Close to shore, the mother feels protected. She is at ease to feed her calf and she deserves some privacy and respect while doing so.
“Whales in such circumstances are practically oblivious to people watching from the shore so the proposed new rules should make it more enjoyable for those who want to do the right thing and do not want to see whales harassed or distressed.
“The whales are, however, highly sensitive to boats and people in the water and so require extra protection in these circumstances.”
With the whale watching season well under way, it is estimated there are at least 1,200 of the threatened southern right whales currently off the Australian coast.
“We are very fortunate to have evidence of the recovery of an internationally threatened species on our doorstep and we must take appropriate action to protect these animals as they recover from the terrible over-harvesting of the whaling era that nearly drove them to extinction,” Dr Edwards said.
“We cannot afford to let overzealous people damage their ongoing recovery or our ability to appreciate them safely from the shore.
“It is an offence under the Wildlife Conservation Act to harass whales, so if whales are diving for prolonged periods or swimming evasively while you are watching them, then you are disturbing and upsetting them.
“The new special protection will only apply to whale mothers and calves close to shore, because they have very limited opportunity to protect themselves from harassment. When they are in deeper water, a mother and calf can dive to get away.
“A mother needs to feed her calf about 600 litres a day so that it can deal with the harsh conditions it is going to face in the open oceans and the cold waters south of Australia.
“She needs time to do that.”
Dr Edwards said she was keen to work with the Federal Government in its review of the national whale watching guidelines to see if the new Western Australian proposals could be standardised around Australia.
Minister's office: 9220 5050