Santos Receives OK for Otway Seismic Survey

The Australian Minister for the Environment, Dr. David Kemp, has rejected claims that a seismic survey in the Bass Strait's Otway Basin would harm Blue Whales. "The Federal Government is totally committed to the conservation and protection of our threatened marine species and would not allow any action likely to have a significant adverse impact on Blue Whales," Dr. Kemp said.

Santos Ltd had previously received approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) to conduct a seismic survey in the Otway Basin area of Bass Strait, offshore from western Victoria, under stringent conditions. The survey was to be finished by December 15th, to ensure there was no activity within areas of critical habitat for the Blue Whale after that date.

Dr. Kemp said that while Santos had committed to these conditions, its schedule was delayed due to damage to the vessel contracted to do the survey, and the company had applied to extend the survey time. "I have agreed to Santos' application, so long as the company abides by the original condition that there is no seismic activity within the critical habitat area after December 15th," Dr. Kemp said. "I am advised by my department that while Blue Whales feed in the area during the warmer months of the year, there have been relatively few sightings in December, with peak aggregations occurring in late summer.

"By dividing the work program into two, Santos can complete the first stage of the survey and be totally outside the critical area for the Blue Whales by December 15th as originally envisaged. All survey work after that will be about 25 to 35 kilometers away from where the bulk of whale sightings have been recorded.

"Santos has also undertaken to commence work in the north and move away from the whale area to ensure the greatest separation distance when whales are more likely to be present, and to make every effort to complete the survey by December 31st.

"The risk of encountering significant numbers of feeding whales during the proposed new times has been assessed by my department as acceptably low, provided additional measures more stringent than the previous conditions are adhered to. My department has advised me that, even if some Blue Whales were present in the area, these conditions would ensure that there would be no significant impact on them.

"I therefore decided that the proposal is not a controlled action under the EPBC Act if it is taken in accordance with such rigorous measures as daily aerial surveys, passive acoustic monitoring, continuous cetacean observations by an independent, trained and dedicated cetacean observer, use of spotter vessels, application of a five kilometer avoidance zone as well as the adoption of the Government's Cetacean Interaction Guidelines.

"These measures will not only ensure protection for the Blue Whales but will also provide valuable data about the species to assist with their future conservation. Knowledge about Blue Whales is limited and the measures imposed are expected to add to the body of research and information available."