03.09.2010: Whale migration threatened by gas plant

As controversy escalates over plans for a gas processing plant on the Kimberley coast, humpback whales are completing their annual migration to calving grounds in its pristine bays and coastal stretches.

The graceful creatures, which can often be seen lunging spectacularly out of the water, are a major tourist attraction in northwest Western Australia, where some of the world's largest populations of humpback whales gather.

The whales, which were harpooned until 1963 in Western Australia, have become the focus of environmental groups opposing the site of major oil and gas projects along the Kimberley coast. They have launched a TV campaign calling on Premier Colin Barnett to create marine sanctuaries and save the Kimberley wilderness.  "Premier, you made a promise to protect the Kimberley's whales, but none of their nursery grounds are safe within marine sanctuaries," says a voiceover on the advertisement.

Forcibly acquired

On Thursday, the Western Australian government announced it will forcibly acquire land for a $30 billion gas processing plant at James Price Point, north of Broome, a spot where some of the largest pods of humpbacks have been counted offshore. Gas proponent Woodside Energy is conducting aerial surveys to determine how many whales move through the area, in the path of future LNG tankers and other vessels.

This week the green groups - The Wilderness Society, Environs Kimberley and the Conservation Council of WA - also released a tourism study from Curtin University. This argues that Broome's whale-watching industry could be affected by an unsightly gas plant and jetty, increased shipping and the impact of seismic surveys on whale populations.

Martin Pritchard, from community organisation Environs Kimberley, says the humpback's migratory routes and breeding areas can only be protected by creating large sanctuary areas extending from south of Broome to Camden Sound further north, a well-known calving ground. "In such sanctuaries, marine life can feed, breed and migrate through, away from industrial development and commercial fishing," he says.

Tourism impacts

According to researcher Dr Michael Hughes, the Kimberley wilderness 'brand' would be devalued by industrial growth. He says a dozen Broome tour operators, including indigenous-run businesses, now offer whale-watching. "It could extend the chain of marine wildlife experiences along the WA coast, from dolphins and penguins in the south to dolphins, whale sharks and turtles on the Gascoyne coast area, and whales in the Kimberley," he says.

As many as 20,000 whales arrive each year from feeding grounds in the Antarctic. The premier has said only three tankers a week would disturb the waters around James Price Point, but whale researcher and wildlife photographer Richard Costin says whales and their calves are already affected by increased boat traffic.

"I've watched whales that were visible on the surface dive when a noisy boat comes along, and stay out of sight until it leaves," he says. Yet this is the place where they were born and where they return each year from the Antarctic. This is the whales' home."

 

Source: Australian Geographic

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