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Opening Address by Senator the Hon Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Australia,

to the
52nd Meeting of the International Whaling Commission
3 July 2000

Mr Chairman, Commissioners, Ministers, distinguished delegates and observers, ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all, on behalf of the Australian Government, to this fifty-second meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

The Commission's first meeting of the new millennium has the potential to be a particularly significant one in determining the direction we wish to take in moving our work forward.

The passing of the old century was a time for reflection - the dawning of the new century is a time for renewal and recommitment.

This is particularly so for those of us charged with responsibility for managing and protecting our natural environment.

Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to reflect on the mistakes of the old century and commit to a new course of environmental responsibility for the new century.

It is over 20 years since the Commission last held one of its annual meetings in Australia. The world has changed greatly in the intervening decades - as indeed have attitudes towards marine resources management.

An example of that change was the decision of this body in 1982 to establish a global moratorium on commercial whaling.

But there has also been a growing recognition of the broader need for global action and cooperation to conserve our oceans and their biological diversity.

The world's marine biodiversity is facing serious and worsening threats as a result of pollution, over-exploitation, conflicting uses of resources, and damage to or destruction of habitat. A global effort is required to overcome such threats.

Australia is conscious of its responsibilities in contributing to that effort.

In 1998 we released Australia's Oceans Policy, the first time worldwide that a national government brought together all marine and coastal actions under a coordinated framework.

Part of that policy approach has been efforts to protect all of our marine creatures - whether they be great or small. Apart from our well-known interest in the protection of whales, we have also acted responsibly to protect other marine creatures which do not enjoy such a high public profile.

We have, for example, established the world's first system of sanctuaries for dugongs and have implemented controls on the export of some of the ocean's smallest but quirkiest creatures - seahorses and sea dragons.

We have also made great advances in developing a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, declared progressively since 1975, has long been the world's largest and perhaps the best known example. The Australian Government has recently created five new Marine Protected Areas, including the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, which provides special protection for southern right whale calving habitat. We have also been heartened by international support for Australia's proposal for a system of marine protected areas in international waters.

Mr Chairman, the world's whale populations were hunted unsustainably, many species were hunted to the point of extinction. Over 1.5 million whales were taken from the Southern Hemisphere alone last century.

The Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling has had some positive benefits in the recovery of whale numbers but we are still not sure if it came in time to save particular species.

We now hear the arguments of those opposed to a continued moratorium that numbers of certain species have recovered enough to allow the resumption of full-scale whaling.

But when it comes to conserving our animals and marine creatures, second chances are rare. For those species of whales which were not hunted to extinction, it appears we have been given that second chance - a chance which must not be lost.

Of course, as an Australian, I speak with some authority on this issue. Our record on whaling has not always been one to be proud of.

Whaling was a significant industry in Australia for a very long time, dating back to the early days of European settlement.

Too many whales were killed; populations, particularly the magnificent Southern Right whale, were devastated almost to extinction. Ignorance and greed had brought their inevitable reward. But we did learn.

In 1980, just three years after hosting the IWC meeting as a whaling nation, the then government of Malcolm Fraser passed legislation banning the hunting of whales in Australian waters.

The actions of the Fraser Government helped spark an increasing public awareness and interest in the conservation of whales. This in turn has led to the growth of a significant whale watching industry in Australia.

In 1998, more than 800, 000 people travelling in Australia reported that one of their holiday activities was organised whale watching, and its importance for tourism continues to grow steadily.

This activity pours millions of dollars each year into regional economies. I know that some of you had the opportunity over the weekend to visit Victor Harbour - just one of the many regional townships to have recently prospered from whale-related tourism.

It is fair to say that the Australia economy now generates more revenue each year from protecting whales than it ever did from hunting and killing them.

And it is an experience shared by other nations. I am pleased that whale watching is now regularly on the IWC agenda. Australia is keen to share experiences in the development and proper regulation of this industry.

In the week ahead the Commission has a number of significant matters to consider. Amongst these is a proposal from Australia, New Zealand and supported by the Pacific Island States which seeks the protection and conservation of whale stocks in the South Pacific, through the creation of a South Pacific Sanctuary.

The proposed Sanctuary will complement the existing Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean Sanctuaries, providing protection from commercial whaling for many whale populations throughout their ranges. The Southern Ocean Sanctuary protects the feeding grounds of these species while the proposed South Pacific Sanctuary will protect their breeding grounds. We believe that this proposal will make a significant contribution to the protection of whales in the region, while promoting research and the development of sustainable whale watching industries.

Can I particularly thank my ministerial colleagues Elliot Morley and Sandra Lee who have travelled from the UK and New Zealand respectively to support the proposed sanctuary.

I have no doubt that this, and the other proposals before the meeting will be subject to robust debate, which is entirely appropriate.

Mr Chairman, since the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed in 1946 community attitudes towards whales and whaling have changed considerably in many parts of the world. Like other international legal instruments, the Convention provides a framework for the regime of regulation to evolve in line with changing international community values.

We must embrace our responsibility to carefully and sensitively manage our marine environment in line with these changing community values.

I would hope that everyone involved in this 52nd meeting of the International Whaling Commission would continue to work to achieve these aims.

Thank you Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. I wish you well with your meeting and trust that your stay in Australia is both enjoyable and memorable.

Commonwealth of Australia