Study warns of vessel risk to whales in Exmouth Gulf

Shannon BeattiePilbara News
A humpback whale breaches at sunset in the Exmouth Gulf.
Camera IconA humpback whale breaches at sunset in the Exmouth Gulf. Credit: Supplied, Valentina Geer

Humpback whales are at risk from noise made by large vessels operating in the Exmouth Gulf, research by Murdoch University’s Professor Lars Bejder has found.

The finding comes just days after influential environmental group Protect Ningaloo referred the operation of oil and gas vessels in the area to the Environmental Protection Authority because of concerns about their possible impact on marine life.

In his study, Professor Bejder found undisturbed rest and feeding in Exmouth Gulf was critical for the survival of humpback whale calves and the introduction of industrial activities to the area would have negative consequences.

“A potential increase in moving vessels and a concomitant increase in anthropogenic noise in Exmouth Gulf, will likely cause an increased risk of ship strikes and acoustic masking to resting and nursing mother and calf humpback whales,” the study stated.

“This may potentially compromise energy reserves for the upcoming migration and predator avoidance, with possible deleterious fitness consequences.”

Protect Ningaloo has referred companies including Woodside and Chevron to the EPA because of concerns they were present in the Gulf throughout the entire humpback whale nursing season.

Protect Ningaloo campaigner Jeremy Tager said their actions appeared to be part of a concerted push to industrialise the Gulf by stealth.

“Ningaloo’s nursery, a place of amazing beauty and diversity, deserves proper protection, not more pressure,” he said.

“Such a remarkable waterway is too precious to be turned into a fossil fuel hub.”

A Woodside spokeswoman said recently a number of Woodside-contracted vessels had used the Gulf in support of the offshore oil and gas Greater Enfield Project, about 50km from Exmouth. “We have assessed the potential impacts of these vessels, which have mainly transferred materials from stationary heavy lift and supply vessels to installation support vessels,” she said. “Contracted vessels are required to implement whale mitigation management practices during the humpback whale migration season.”

Mr Tager believes Professor Bejder’s study challenges plans to industrialise Exmouth Gulf.

“Exmouth Gulf is facing the prospect of 10km long pipes being hauled through Exmouth Gulf, and this comes on top of the already problematic increase in heavy vessel traffic from the oil and gas industry, as well as plans for a deepwater port and a salt mine,” he said.

There is little doubt that such a dramatic increase in the industrial use of the Gulf will impact on the numbers and health of whales but also on all the marine mammals relying on the Gulf for food, rest and replenishment.”

The EPA is conducting preliminary investigations into Protect Ningaloo’s referral.

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