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Whale Deaths on the West Coast

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 24 September 2020

Tags: Environment, Native Wildlife

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, this is a most heartbreaking tragedy unfolding on the west coast, and in some ways the debate we are having today is a condolence motion for all those lives that have been lost.

I have not seen many front pages like today's Mercury. That was a deeply confronting image, so much life lost, and so many questions about why it happens. It is just devastating. We have seen all over the country, and the world, an outpouring of emotion from people who see what is happening on the west coast, and it breaks their hearts too.

I also want to thank the rescuers and the amazing people from the Parks and Wildlife Service. We have seen rescuers from all walks of life and their frantic determination to save these animals' lives, their utter desperation and ultimately in so many cases their grief at seeing the loss of life of these highly intelligent, sentient, social, beautiful animals.

ABC journalist Edith Bevin said this morning that crews have told how baby pilot whales are swimming in shallow water near their stranded mothers on Tasmania's west coast, knocking into rescuers and swimming between their legs as they try to free the adult whales. She reported one rescuer as saying:

It's just the grimmest thing and the sad truth that no matter how many you take back to deep water, they're always going to swim towards the clicks and squeals.

One of the hardest things for people who care to cope with is not being able to understand why whales do this. There has been an analysis of Tasmania's stranding record and it has been found that there is about an 11- to 13-year cycle that is linked to ocean conditions and some of the experts believe that this week's pilot whale strandings fit that cycle, but we need to have long-term records to understand whether there are any environmental drivers or any human drivers, for example, like seismic testing in Bass Strait and off King Island.

As a journalist, in 1993 I went to a whale stranding on Tasmania's west coast and again it was long-finned pilot whales along Ocean Beach. Again we saw people from all walks of life and all points of the compass in Tasmania converge on Ocean Beach to do what they could to save lives. I was telling Dr Woodruff this morning that I got into trouble with the news editor because I could not stand there and just film what was happening. I felt a very strong need to help and that really is not what journalists should do, which is perhaps why in some ways I was not such a terrific journalist.

I read Helen Kempton's piece in the Mercury where she talks about the sounds they make as they call out to each other. It struck me when I read that quite remarkable piece of writing that for the first responders and the journalists, an experience like this is life-changing. For Helen Kempton, it seems to me that she has been profoundly affected by these deaths. She said that rescuers made their way to those they hoped could be saved and the animals lay almost still and compliant as teams slid slings under the whales' bodies. I quote marine conservation wildlife biologist Chris Carlyon from Parks and Wildlife, who said:

There was very little that could be done to save the majority and this is a natural event. We know strandings occurred prior to humans. We do step in and respond but as far as being able to prevent these, there is very little we could do.

The tragedy on the west coast is believed to be Australia's largest stranding ever recorded. The largest was in lutruwita/Tasmania in 1935 when 294 pilot whales were stranded in Stanley. In a time of biodiversity decline when we know that animals are being impacted by human activity on the planet, when so many whales die in one event, it has to have a profound effect on the number of the species.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I might just sit down now; I am not going so well on this. Just in closing, I am deeply grateful to everyone who went to the rescue effort. I know the people who are there did what they could and are doing what they can and how heartbreaking it must be for them, as it is for all of us. I just want to express my deepest condolences for these beautiful whales.