Tourism body worried about humpbacks' welfare after changes

UPDATE: Tourism Fraser Coast is concerned for the welfare of humpback whales in the wake of the State Government lifting the ban on commercial whale watching in state waters.

Robbie Cornelius, acting general manager of the tourism body, said as a collective, the whale watch operators in Hervey Bay, Sunshine Coast and Moreton Bay had numerous concerns regarding the new legislation but none more so than for the welfare of the humpback whales themselves.

"The state waters surrounding the Gold Coast serve as a key migratory corridor for humpback whales and we have real concerns for the safety, particularly of the mothers and their calves if commercial operators can access these whales unchecked," he said.

"We also have real concerns for the ongoing sustainability of the Gold Coast whale watching industry as we believe that the changes to the Marine Mammal legislation offer no security for existing operators on the Gold Coast.

"Under this new legislation, any vessel can operate commercial whale watching tours on the Gold Coast without the need for a permit.

"This is not only a negative for existing Gold Coast operators but it could also cheapen the whale watching experience
currently enjoyed on the Gold Coast."

Mr Cornelius said by contrast, Hervey Bay, and to a lesser extent Moreton Bay, was world renowned as a leading whale watching destination, much like the Great Barrier Reef was world renowned as the best diving/snorkeling destination.

"Integral to that world-class positioning is the high standards, checks and balances, both from a conservation and business practice perspective that have been a result of a benchmark permit system," he said.

Mr Cornelius said while Tourism Fraser Coast applauded the State Government on its strong stance on tourism and its  interest in reducing red tape to create new opportunities for nature-based tourism, "we believe that this needs to be done firstly with the view of conserving the natural attraction itself, therefore maintaining a sustainable, quality whale-watching industry for Queensland".

He said Tourism Fraser Coast would continue to liaise with all stakeholders to work towards a fair and equitable outcome for all.

EARLIER: Fraser Coast whale-watching operators claim the State Government has given with one hand and taken away with the other after a funding package was announced at the same time as legislative changes they fear could cripple their businesses.

The government announced it was giving $200,000 for the promotion of the Hervey Bay whale-watching industry on thursday, while at the same time lifting the ban on commercial whale watching in state waters off the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast.

Jason Brigden from Whalesong Cruises said lifting this ban was giving Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast operators an unfair advantage, as operators here had to travel twice as far to see the same whales in the Marine Park and also had to pay for permits to do so.

Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast operators would not have to pay the same fees and charges, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

Jill Perry from Quick Cat II was scathing about the decision.

"It lets the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast operators do whatever they want, whenever they want.

"This will put hundreds of boats in the path of migrating whales... we will see more young whales washed up each year," she said.

The Department of Environment said commercial whale watching could now occur in state waters outside of a marine park without the requirement of a permit, providing operators abided by the regulations, including approach distances to whales.

Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell said the decision "ends the absurdity of commercial operators having to travel out to Commonwealth waters before they can stop and look at whales."

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