Southern Right Whales are recovering slowly from near extinction caused by historical whaling. Due to the relatively small numbers of whales that breed off the Australian coast, the species is listed nationally as Endangered.
The population of Southern Right Whales that visits the Australian coast each year to breed is estimated to have increased by about 4–5% per year in the past two decades, bringing the total population to approximately 3500 whales. As the population increases, the whales are extending their breeding areas into previously occupied suitable habitat.
Flinders Bay and Geographe Bay off south-western Western Australia were likely to have been important calving areas before commercial whaling began. Much of this habitat is popular for recreational boating and other marine activities. This project provides evidence that Flinders Bay and Geographe Bay now fit the criteria to be recognised nationally as Biologically Important Areas (BIAs) for Southern Right Whales.
BIAs for protected species are where individuals aggregate for calving, foraging, resting or migration, and therefore are important to decisions made under national environmental laws. They are determined by the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water and can be updated as new relevant species information becomes available.
Approach and findings
Photographs of Southern Right Whales have been used in research for decades to identify the unique callosity patterns that form on the whales’ heads. Individual whales, and the areas of habitat they use, can be tracked throughout their lives. This project collated and examined thousands of Southern Right Whale photos to identify individual whales and assess the value of Geographe Bay and Flinders Bay as calving grounds. Researchers from Edith Cowan University and Western Whale Research worked through a 30-year archive of photos taken by scientists, volunteers and Naturaliste Charters Whale Watching operations.
The 2,706 land and aerial photos were taken in 1994–202 in the south-western Australia’s Ngari Capes Marine Park, which includes areas of suitable habitat in Flinders Bay and Geographe Bay. The images were processed, matched and uploaded to the Australasian Right Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue (ARWPIC). They showed the bays to be important calving grounds with more than 200 individuals visiting in the past 30 years (141 in the Geographe Bay region and 88 in Flinders Bay). This included 15 calving females in both Geographe Bay and Flinders Bay. Mothers and calves stayed for up to two months in Geographe Bay, where a returning female was resighted nine years apart, each time with a calf.
The photographic record provided evidence that both bays therefore qualify to be categorised as ‘a small established aggregation area’ for Southern Right Whales, according to BIA definitions outlined in the Southern Right Whale Conservation Management Plan. Research users were engaged to evaluate the best format for communicating findings, to facilitate management, conservation, education, knowledge sharing, and community awareness.
Evidence obtained from this project will enable updates to nationally recognised aggregation areas for Southern Right Whales. This knowledge is key to managing the population and monitoring its recovery. Photographs uploaded to ARWPIC will enable future comparisons with regions across Australia.
Stakeholders have a shared understanding of the importance of these areas to Southern Right Whales. This includes government agencies responsible for managing marine protected areas and species listed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, cultural custodians, local government, marine-based industries, and the community.
South-western Western Australia: Flinders Bay and Geographe Bay
Edith Cowan University
Eco Gecko Environment and Design
Western Whale Research
Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water
Shire of Busselton
Undalup Association Inc.
WA Department of Conservation, Biodiversity, and Attractions
WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development
Wadandi Noongar Elders
Technical report – Project 1.22
A photo-identification study of southern right whales to update aggregation area classification in the southwest of Australia
Salgado Kent CP, Burton C, Giroud M and Elsdon B (2022) A photo-identification study of southern right whales to update aggregation area classification in the southwest of Australia. Report to the National Environmental Science Program. Edith Cowan University.