HISTORIC PRACTICE: Whaling in Byron Bay in the 1960s – a whale ready for transport by rail.
HISTORIC PRACTICE: Whaling in Byron Bay in the 1960s – a whale ready for transport by rail. The Northern Star Archives

Trish and Wally take whales personally

WHEN the International Court of Justice gave its ruling on Monday that Japanese whaling in the Antarctic was not for scientific purposes, and therefore in violation of the International Whaling Convention, environmental and whaling groups around the world celebrated the decision as a major victory.

In Byron Bay, wife and husband Trish and Wally Franklin's response was an emotional one. Understandably, given the couple's dedication to the species. For more than 20 years, Trish and Wally, directors of the not for profit research and information organisation Oceania Project have been studying the eastern Australian humpback whales.

Together, they have photographed, identified and categorised more than 3000 individuals and recorded 600 histories.

During that time, the Franklins have watched the whales grow and discovered their unique personalities.

To Trish, the humpback whales that carry their songs through the ocean are reminiscent of the traditional owners of the land.

"They roam over such vast lands and vast seas, yet they've all got their own group and songs to carry," she said.

"It would be devastating for us to think of any of those individual whales losing their lives," Wally said.

"This court decision has probably been one of the most major steps forward in the long-term conservation and care of the eastern Australian humpback whales.

"It finally does, to a degree, provide some teeth to the International Whaling Commission to evaluate future proposals that may involve the killing of whales or dolphins."

The court ruled that although Japan had a right to issue itself a research permit under article eight of the convention, the numbers of whales being killed was clearly for commercial purposes.

Wally said of the about 80 scientific papers produced by Japan, only two had significance.

He said the papers revealed that of the 10,000 whales killed by the Japanese, only nine had had samples taken from them.

While the majority of the Franklins' research has taken place in Hervey Bay, each of the whales identified would have passed Cape Byron, often coming inside Julian Rocks as they hugged the east coast on their migration.

Cape Byron has become a must-visit site for whale watchers, a stark contrast to the whale slaughtering industry that was in full swing from 1954 to 1962.

The industry ceased operation after 1962 because of a severe shortage of whales brought about by illegal whaling in the Antarctic by Russia after the Second World War.

In just two seasons, Russia captured and slaughtered an estimated 25,000 humpback whales. At the end of the second season it was estimated there were just 150 humpback whales remaining.

Wally said it has taken 50 years, but there are now about 18,000 east Australian humpback whales.

He estimates it will still take another 50 years for the populations to return to their original numbers. One of the Franklins' major concerns with Japanese whaling was that the ship they were using was the same kind of whaling fleet used by the Russians.

"We could have potentially wiped out our 18,000 whales in one or two seasons so they were at very high risk," Wally said. "This court case eliminates that risk as long as the Japanese stick to what they've said."

With the issue of Japanese whaling resolved, Wally said the attention could now be turned to other factors affecting the recovery of the species, including entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes from increasing traffic along the east coast, pollution, habitat degradation from dredging and the biggest issue of all, climate change.

He said the increasing acidification of the ocean from climate change would destroy plankton, which is a major producer of the world's oxygen. The humpback whales' food source krill is one form of plankton.

"There's still a lot more work to be done with the whales and fortunately the Japanese whaling issue is out of the way."

Whale trail

From June to August each year the humpbacks migrate north from the cold Antarctic waters where they feed on krill to the warm tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef to breed. The whole migration covers about 11,000km with the whales typically heading back down the coast from late September to November.

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