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Motion: National Threatened Species Day and Whalers Way


The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:14): I move:
That this council—

1. Recognises that Thursday 7 September 2023 was National Threatened Species Day;

2. Notes that Whalers Way, located on the southern tip of Eyre Peninsula, is home to a number of threatened, endangered and migratory species including the southern emu-wren and southern right whale;

3. Acknowledges that the Southern Launch Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex poses a significant risk to the protected habitat crucial for the survival of the southern emu-wren and southern right whale; and

4. Calls on the Malinauskas government to safeguard this nature sanctuary and commit to zero extinctions as a matter of priority.

This is Biodiversity Month and last week it was National Threatened Species Day. It is an important day in Australian history, as it marks the date on which the Tasmanian tiger was officially declared an extinct species in 1936. It was 60 years on, in 1996, that we saw the first inaugural National Threatened Species Day.

It is, I think, a time to reflect on human stupidity and greed. That tiger was believed to have died from the cold after being locked out of its sleeping quarters in the Hobart Zoo back in 1936. Yet the species, of course, had already received its real death sentence despite being common in Tasmania before European settlement as far back as 1803. Tasmanian tigers were believed to have been driven to extinction predominantly by hunting, with habitat destruction and disease believed also to have played a role.

Since 1936, far too many other species have followed the Tassie tiger down that sad extinction path. National Threatened Species Day is a stark reminder that the native species we respect and adore could well slip away from us unless we act now. There are far too many on the list, but today I will focus on two in particular and one place in South Australia in particular—a very special place.

Whalers Way, located on the southern tip of Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, is home to a number of threatened, endangered and migratory species. It is located within a conservation zone and it is covered by a state heritage agreement due to its significant native vegetation. Whalers Way also represents critical remnant habitat for the southern emu-wren of Eyre Peninsula, a beautiful bird which has recently had its protection increased by changing its national conservation status from vulnerable to endangered.

The southern emu-wren is a small bird with a stick-like tail of six feathers. It is called an emu-wren because those tail feathers are emu-like. Their plumage is olive grey or brown grey. It has a brown streak across its head, neck and back, and it has a white belly. The male has a distinctive large patch of light or sky blue on its chin, throat and upper breast, and a stripe above its eye, which the female does not have. The southern emu-wren is not very skilled at flying, and instead tends to hop or scramble like a mouse through scrubland and habitat. It might be able to fly for perhaps a few metres at best, if it can manage that.

The main threat to the southern emu-wren at Whalers Way is the loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat. The largest threat right now to the southern emu-wren in South Australia at Whalers Way is Southern Launch, an Australian rocket launch and range service provider which has been using Whalers Way as a rocket launching complex since September 2021. According to Southern Launch's own environmental impact statement, the southern emu-wren may well be significantly impacted by:

…habitat loss, fauna mortality from vehicle strike, and indirect impacts that may lead to behavioural changes from noise and light.

Put simply, Whalers Way is the wrong place for space. It is an industry that is experimental by its very nature and fraught with danger to this species.

The Nature Conservation Society of South Australia has said land clearance, disturbance by humans, including noise, vibration and cars, as well as the increased risk of bushfire, puts the bird at extreme risk. The rocket launching campaign is a significant risk to this area of national environmental significance and threatens the protected habitat that is critical to these species' survival. Despite all this, the proponent, Southern Launch, continues to push ahead with its plan and refuses to refer it for consideration under the EPBC Act.

Whalers Way is also an important nursery for the migratory southern right whale, listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The southern right whale usually calves every three years, but a 2022 Curtin University led study has found that the majority of whales are having an offspring only every four or five years. Indeed, the report found that increased calving intervals have been linked to climate change and slower recovery rates.

For more than 30 years researchers have conducted annual surveys of southern right whales to track their population off Australia's southern coastline. Southern right whales were once abundant in the waters off South Australia, but intensive whaling in the 1800s drastically scaled back their numbers. Again, we point to human greed and, in some ways, stupidity. The right whales, as many in this chamber would know, were called the 'right whales' because they were seen as the right ones to hunt. Why? Because they were close to the shore, they were slow, they would float when dead, and it would be easy to harvest the abundant oil and baleen.

Conservation efforts have boosted the endangered species' Australian population to around 3,000, but the report author, Dr Claire Charlton, has said more can be done to protect the southern right whales. A recent census recorded low numbers this year. Only 320 whales were counted this year, compared to 530 last year, with significantly fewer mother and calf pairs than in previous years. Census takers, photographers and tourism officials are devastated, saying the ocean feels like a 'barren desert' this season.

We know that the key threats to whale populations are habitat destruction, underwater noise and strikes from marine vessels and entanglement. Scientific evidence continues to emerge that the level of noise pollution associated with this type of development causes serious behavioural disruption in these marine mammals. This is not the right place for space at Whalers Way.

Southern Launch's environmental impact statement is also trying to claim that the debris would not have a significant impact on marine life below the surface and that the noise from rocket-launchers and tests would not expose any wildlife to a decibel level sufficient to cause 'permanent hearing damage'. This rocket launching campaign will have devastating impacts on all the animals who call Whalers Way their home. That is the real potential here. Allowing this experimental process to go ahead—something that was approved only temporarily—does risk long-term damage to Australia's already struggling biodiversity.

The South Australian Heritage Act was established in 1978 to prevent the overclearance of native vegetation and to protect native fauna in the agricultural regions of our state. The memorandum of agreement states that the landholder shall not, without the written consent of the minister, undertake or permit within the heritage agreement area the clearance of native vegetation; the planting of vegetation, whether native or exotic; the construction of a building or other structure; the grazing of stock or any other activity that, in the opinion of the minister, is likely to damage, injure or endanger the native vegetation or native fauna within the heritage agreement area.

Less than 1 per cent of land in South Australia is protected under the Heritage Act, and Whalers Way is just a tiny part of that tiny percentage. That heritage agreement is an incredibly important act, as we reflect on Biodiversity Month, because it was established at a time when it was becoming clearer and clearer that we needed to protect what little we had left of our native vegetation, the flora and fauna, into the future.
That was 45 years ago. The need was great then; the need is even greater now. Natural ecosystems and biodiversity are essential to human health and wellbeing and there is an inextricable link between a healthy environment and the health of us and our society. Protected areas such as Whalers Way are vital to the preservation of Australia's biodiversity. They are vital to the continuation in South Australia of the southern emu-wren.

As we reflect on National Threatened Species Day, and the stupidity of human populations and the devastating effect that has on other populations, I think it is important to reflect on a day like this that is important, a month like this that is important, but action right now is important: putting space in the right place, ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of our past. If we do not reflect on days like today and the history that we already have, we are doomed to reflect and repeat the mistakes of our past. With that, I commend the motion.

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