Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale
Eubalaena australis
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
Status
World: least concern (IUCN)
Australia: endangered (EPBC Act)
Victoria: critically endangered
FFG: listed; Action Statement No.94
Southern Right Whale
Southern Right Whale

The Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis is a species which has been brought to the brink of extinction in the first half of the 19th Century due to commercial whaling. It is the only member of the family Balaenidae in the Southern Hemisphere, although it is closely related to two northern hemisphere species (Eubalaena japonica and Eubalaena glacialis) but it is reproductively isolated by geographic separation of calving grounds and asynchronous breeding seasons.

 

The Southern Right Whale is one of the mysticete or baleen group of whales but does not have the pleated throat and ventral groves that are a feature of whales in the family Balaenopteridae.

The Southern Right Whale has an average length of 16m (weighing about 50 tonnes) and a distinctive, bulky blue-black or dark brown rotund body, which features obvious white markings (callosities) around the mouth, above the eyes and on top of the head. The pattern of these skin growths is unique to each animal and is used for photo identification of individual whales.

 

Distribution

The Southern Right Whale has circumpolar distribution in the Southern Hemisphere occurring between latitudes of approx. 30-60 0S, they are known to occur in coastal waters of South America, South Africa, New Zealand and some oceanic islands but populations of Southern Right Whales in Australia are genetically distinct from other southern hemisphere populations.

In Australia, Southern Right Whales are recorded along the southern coastline from Perth to Sydney including Tasmania. The National Conservation Management Plan for Southern Right Whale 2011 - 2021 recognises two genetically distinct Australian stocks, South Eastern Australian and South Western Australian..

In 2008 the entire the population which spans across the Southern Hemisphere was estimated to be 7500 with up to 2100 frequenting Australian waters (DEWHA 2007, IUCN 08). In 2012 the overall Australian Southern Right Whale population (South-west and South-east) was estimated to be 3,500 (National Conservation Management Plan for Southern Right Whale 2011 - 2021).

It was thought that the many of the populations across the Southern Hemisphere had had a general overall increase of about 7% per year but the status of the south-east Australia population (Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales) appears not to have exhibited the same rate of increase, placing them in a more vulnerable situation. The South-western Australian population is currently estimated at 2,900 and the South-eastern population only 200 - 300 whales.

 

Ecology & Habitat

In Australia, Southern Right Whales have an annual migration between summer feeding grounds in the sub-antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean to more temperate inshore waters inshore waters off the coast of southern Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and occasionally New South Wales.

During what is termed the 'over-wintering months' (May to November) they have a tendency to frequent certain coastal areas where localised aggregations occur and during this time breeding, calving and rearing of young takes place. It is estimated that 95% of the total Australian population over-winters at the head of the Great Australian Bight in South Australia.

Through the development of marine bioregional plans, Biologically Important Areas (BIAs) have been identified for southern right whales. These are areas are important for the conservation of protected species and are considered to support biologically-important behaviours of the Southern Right Whale e.g. calving, foraging, resting or migration. Thirteen Southern Right Whale coastal aggregation areas have been identified in Australia, three of which are in Victoria (Portland, Port Fairy/Warrnambool and Port Campbell/Peterborough). The Port Fairy/Warrnambool area is identified as an established small BIA and the Portland and Port Campbell area identified as emerging BIA’s.

Aggregations of Southern Right Whales in Australia
Aggregations of Southern Right Whales in Australia. Source: National Conservation Management Plan for Southern Right Whale 2011 - 2021).

The Southern Right Whale is thought to have about a 60 year life span. Following mating the gestation period is about 11-12 months, pregnant cows give birth to one calf (about 5.5 meters in length) once every three years. Lactating females fast for at least four months while providing milk for calves. Southern Right Whales are not known to feed in Australian waters, their feeding grounds are further south (40-600 S) but rarely observed near the Antarctic pack-ice. They feed primarily on copepods and post-lavae of Munida gregaria and occasionally the larger Euphausia sp. krill, but are not considered to compete against other baleen whales for food.

The waters east of Warrnambool known as Logans Beach have proven to be a regular site where calving and rearing takes place. It could be considered the only true nursery area in Australian waters. Females show a strong fidelity for frequenting calving sites. Whales can arrive from May onwards and females with young can remain in this nursery area up until October or early November. At present it is not known why this area or other favoured areas are repeatedly chosen and what factors constitutes suitable habitat at these sites.

 

Threats

Southern Right Whales were hunted close to extinction; the Australian industry reached its peak in 1837 and was considered to be in a state of collapse by 1840. Continued hunting in the summer feeding grounds further reduced the population to a point where it became extremely rare and no longer commercially viable, by 1935 it was protected by an international agreement at which time the worldwide population was estimated to be only about 1000 animals.

The slow but steady recovery in recent years is promising, however a number of new threats have emerged since the cessation of whaling for this species. Threats can impact on both individual whales and to some extent the broader population as humans develop more innovative and intense ways of utilising marine ecosystems. Current threats include; noise from marine industries such as gas and oil off-shore exploration and development, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, interference in nursery areas form unmanaged eco-tourism, collision with ships, ingestion of pollutants from oil spills and marine debris such as plastics. Changes to marine ecosystems and potential impacts on the availability of suitable plankton for food may emerge as issues related to global warming.

Southern Right Whale entangled in fishing equipment in waters off Marengo, near Apollo Bay, 10 September 2018. Image: Willie Bedford
Southern Right Whale entangled in fishing equipment near Apollo Bay, 10 September 2018. Image: Willie Bedford

 

Conservation & Management

Genetic Research

Taking biopsy samples under strict conditions to determine genetic differentiation.
Taking biopsy samples under strict conditions to determine genetic differentiation.

There is now evidence of significant differentiation between South Africa, South America, Australia (WA) and New Zealand haplotype and nucleotype levels (Patenaude et al 2007). Further genetic work between 2001 – 2009 involved data collection from South Eastern Australia which was coordinated by DEPI with support of state and commonwealth funding (AMMC).

Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from 56 samples from New Zealand, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales found:

  • Levels of genetic diversity in the South East Australian population was high and comparable with South West Australia
  • There are significant difference in mt DNA between South East and South West Australia and New Zealand
  • The amount of differentiation between the two Australian populations is greater than either compared with New Zealand

(Carroll et al 2011)

In 2014, further work was carried out with an expanded sample size (94 whales) which also included Tasmania. Preliminary results indicate a confirmed significant mt DNA differentiation between South East and South West populations and differences between states detected using microsat data which is being investigated further.

Photo Identification

Features used in photo identification, based on terms used by (Bannister 1990).
Features used in photo identification, based on terms used by (Bannister 1990).

Each Southern Right Whale has its own unique pattern of white markings (callosities) covering the head area which is used for photo identification (see diagram, based on Bannister 1990). There are four major identification catalogues in Australasia, (South-east Australia, Head of Great Australian Bight, Western Australia and New Zealand). Workshops are held every two to three years at which time photos are matched to assess population size, structure and movement.

The South-eastern Southern Right Whale photo-identification catalogue was established in 2002. It is a multi-government agency project which is co-ordinated by DEPI, Warrnambool. The project is supported by Commonwealth and State based threatened species funding.

Whale identification flights are conducted opportunistically from South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales. Images are stored in Southeast Australia Southern Right Whale Photo Identification Catalogue (SEA SRW PIC). The project also uses the BigFish© system developed for the South Australian government. It is an Access Database with photo-ID matching facility (CodeCompare) based on a system designed in USA. The catalogue holds over 3000 images - primarily dorsal view comprising of 305 individual whales.

Examples of individual whales which have been identified by matching  the unique pattern of white markings (callosities) covering the head area over repeated seasons. Source: SEA SRW PIC Catalogue - Warrnambool.
Examples of individual whales which have been identified by matching the unique pattern of white markings (callosities) covering the head area over repeated seasons. Source: SEA SRW PIC Catalogue - Warrnambool.

Key findings from photo ID:

  • There are a small number of regular breeding females identified from Logans Beach (less than 15).
  • There are very few long-range movements detected within the South-east region
  • Three between New South Wales and Victoria
  • Two between Tasmania and Victoria
  • One between Victoria and South Australia
  • One between western Victoria and Gippsland
  • 2016 photo ID results
  • 2017 photo ID results

DELWP sightings database

Sightings of whales have been carried out by the DELP at Warrnambool since 1985. Between 1985 to 2018, it is estimated that 97 calves have been born in south-west Victoria. At Logans Beach, Warrnambool the average is 2 per year. The most born in one year was 6 calves in 1985. Records indicate no discernible increasing trend. These results combined with the photo identification work suggests that the South-eastern population is small, isolated and therefore very vulnerable compared to other populations which have recorded a 7% increase per year.

Across Victoria, the location of whale sightings is highly variable and usually with a short residency period. The areas of highest density are Portland, Port Fairy and Warrnambool (Logans Beach), Port Campbell Peterborough.

The majority of first sightings in western Victoria1 occur in May (54%) and June (42%). The majority of last sightings in western Victoria occur in September (50%) and October (38%) but there may be an increasing trend towards October with last sightings occurring in 7 out of last 10 years in October.

The earliest sighting on record was at Portland on 22 April 2006. The latest sighting on record was also at Portland on 27 October 2010.

An unusual sighting of a 'white' Southern Right Whale off Port Fairy 27 July 2011 taken by Mandy Watson, DEPI, Warrnambool as part of the Victorian Whale monitoring program.
An unusual sighting of a 'white' Southern Right Whale off Port Fairy 27 July 2011 taken by Mandy Watson, DEPI, Warrnambool as part of the Victorian Whale monitoring program.

Cow and calf pairs (records 2001 - 2011)

Eastern
Cow and calf pairs (records 2001 - 2011) eastern
Central
Cow and calf pairs (records 2001 - 2011) central
Western
Cow and calf pairs (records 2001 - 2011) western

Aerial Survey

The first full population surveys of the South-east Australian region to obtain abundance estimates commenced in August 2013 and were conducted privately by Balaenidae. These surveys used the same methodology which has been used in South-west Australia since the 1970’s.

The aerial surveys involve long coastal flights conducted between Ceduna and Sydney including Tasmania over 7 days to count numbers of Southern Right Whales. A population model is based on the number of cow/calf pairs and assumes;

  • each reproductive female is recorded on the coast only once in 3 years
  • sex ratio of the population is 1:1
  • ratio of immature to mature is 1.41:1- based on the 1998 Cape Town assessment meeting estimate (IWC, 2001)

The 2013 total population estimate was 189 (assuming same numbers of females each year for 3 years) or adjusted to 201 (assuming contiguous with WA). A 2014 survey was completed but the data has not yet been collated.

A minimum of 3 years survey is required to obtain a more accurate snapshot of population abundance.

Management Actions for conservation of the Southern Right Whale in Victoria

The Conservation Management Plan for the Southern Right Whale 2011 – 2021 states that 'conservation management for Southern Right Whales needs to be based around the existence of two populations in Australian waters with different recovery rates'. This emphasises the poor recovery of the South-eastern Southern Right Whale population and the need to do more to secure its long term future.

Research

Collaborate with national investigations into population structure and movement, including DNA sampling and photographic identification of individuals annually.

Monitoring

  • Enlist the support of the wider community including fishermen in reporting of the location of whales to assist photo-id missions, monitoring and entanglement management.
  • Monitor and record whale sightings at Logans Beach with particular emphasis on arrival, calving and departure dates.
  • Monitor whales during season for possible entanglements with fishing gear and marine debris.
  • Southern Right Whale South-eastern Australia monitoring project

Management

  • Enforce the provisions of the Wildlife Act 1975 and the Wildlife (Whales) Regulations 1998 governing whale-watching activities and thus achieve greater protection from human disturbance.
  • Implementation of Logans Beach exclusion zone between 1 June and 31 October each year where all vessels are banned from the area which is used for calving and rearing of juvenile whales.
  • Conduct annual disentanglement training.
  • Provide information to coastal shipping management to ensure it is aware of the potential for whale-ship collisions during the early winter and late spring migration seasons.
  • Prepare & implement media releases at both state and local levels, to ensure that the public is informed about threats to the species. Provide and maintain up-to-date displays & interpretation material as required.
  • Negotiate the incorporation of protection measures for the species in development proposals particularly off-shore oil and gas exploration.
  • Develop guidelines and policy for the protection of whales from impact of noise in Victorian coastal waters, including drilling and seismic testing and development of infrastructure such as drilling platforms, pipe laying and associated shipping.
  • Provision of viewing platforms at Logans Beach to facilitate land based viewing of whales.

 

References & Links

 

More Information

Minimum distances for approaching whales, dolphins and seals in Victoria
  Swimmer or Surfer Recreational Vessel Jet Ski Aircraft
Dolphin 30 m 100 m 300 m #500 m
Whale 50 m 200 m 300 m #500 m
Seal on land 30 m  
#Licensed marine mammal tour operators can approach within 300 m with aircraft.

Special protections zones exist at several sites along the Victorian coastline which have more stringent minimum distances regulated under the WILDLIFE (MARINE MAMMALS) REGULATIONS 2009

Note: photographs used on this page were taken under permit and with the use of high magnification telephoto lens to comply with whale watching regulations.

Vessel operator safety around whales. Source: Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning Victoria, May 16, 2018

Summary of Southern Right Whale observations in Victoria

For 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 results Southern Right Whale South-eastern Australia monitoring project

Southern Right Whale tail Image Willie Bedford
Southern Right Whale near Marengo, Victoria. Image: Willie Bedford, Seatrees Wildlife Shelter

 

 

See also: Humpback Whale

 

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