Skip links and keyboard navigation

New marine mammal legislation – frequently asked questions

Why are new marine mammal regulations required?

Much has changed since the former whale and dolphin, and dugong conservation plans were first prepared in the late 1990s, including:

  • significant growth in the east Australian humpback whale population
  • recognition of a new dolphin species found in Queensland and other parts of northern Australia (the Australian snubfin dolphin)
  • increased human usage of the coastal environment, particularly in the more heavily populated areas of South East Queensland.

The two marine mammal conservation plans have been repealed and new marine mammal regulations have been added to the existing Nature Conservation (Wildlife Management) Regulation 2006.

The new legislation provides a contemporary and responsive management framework for marine mammals in Queensland and is based on the most up-to-date scientific research.

Why has the restriction on commercial whale watching in state waters off the Gold and Sunshine Coasts been lifted?

A whale watching industry exists on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. Operators in these areas previously had to travel through state waters to reach their whale watching destinations in commonwealth waters (more than 3 nautical miles off the coastline) where the majority of humpback whales are located during the annual migration. If operators spotted a whale while travelling through state waters, the legislation previously prohibited them from stopping to watch it.

Allowing operators to watch whales in state waters will enhance the whale watching experience for passengers, further building Queensland’s reputation as a premium whale watching destination, while continuing to ensure appropriate protection for whales through the regulations.

Why wasn't a permit system adopted to manage whale watching in non-marine park state waters?

Permits are typically required for commercial activities within protected areas because these areas hold significant natural and cultural values warranting an elevated level of management. Permits assist marine park managers to limit impacts on high use and sensitive areas and monitor activities that may impact on the values of marine parks, and provide guidelines for activities to ensure they are conducted appropriately. The requirement for commercial whale watching operators within marine parks to hold permits is consistent with the management objectives for those areas.           

Research indicates that the majority of humpback whale pods passing the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast areas travel through commonwealth rather than state waters during the annual migration, which is where commercial whale watching tours have operated for many years.

Introducing a permit system would have created a situation where Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast whale watching operators would require permits for the more incidental nature of whale watching in state waters, but not for the majority of their viewing in commonwealth waters, where most of the whales are located. The new legislation complements the system in the adjacent commonwealth waters, where a permit for conducting commercial whale watching outside of marine park areas is not required.

Although a permit won’t be required to operate a commercial whale watching tour in non-marine park state waters, operators in these areas will be required to abide by the same strict regulations as those within marine parks. These include restrictions on how close they can get to whales, and how many boats can be near a whale at any time.

What are the benefits to whale watching operators of removing the prohibition on whale watching in state waters?

Allowing operators on the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast to take advantage of incidental whale sightings in state waters will enhance the experience for their passengers, support sustained patronage and further enrich Queensland’s reputation as a premium tourist destination.

The new legislation ensures all whale watching operators in Hervey Bay, Moreton Bay and on the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast are required to abide by the same strict regulations aimed at minimising impacts on whales and ensuring a safe viewing experience.

The regulatory changes do not alter the management framework for commercial whale watching in marine parks so existing licensed operators in these areas will continue to maintain exclusive access to marine park waters for the purpose of commercial whale watching provided under their commercial whale watching agreement or permit.

Will there be any impacts on the whales arising from these changes?

Survey data indicates that the east Australian humpback whale population has been recovering strongly following the terrible impacts of commercial whaling last century, with ongoing growth of around 10% each year.

Research indicates that the majority of whale pods passing the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast areas travel through commonwealth rather than state waters, which is where the existing industry already operates. It is not anticipated that allowing operators to also conduct tours in state waters will lead to adverse impacts on whales, as all operators will be required to abide by the same strict regulations.

Why have marine mammal approach distances been changed?

Since the introduction of the former whale and dolphin conservation plans, more is known about the potential negative effects of human interactions, boat strikes and habitat disturbance.

Evidence from scientific research in Australia and overseas has shown that vessel activity in close proximity to marine mammals can have negative impacts on individual animals, animal populations and marine mammal survival rates.

These impacts include interference with necessary behaviours such as foraging and breeding, death and injury as a result of collision with vessels, and short-term and permanent displacement from core habitat areas.

The new legislation provides increased consistency with the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2005 as well as other jurisdictions around Australia, and provides increased protection for our marine mammals.

What happens if a whale or dolphin approaches my boat?

Whales and dolphins will sometimes approach your boat, with some dolphins even riding your boat’s bow wave. Having a wild animal so close to you can be a special and memorable experience. However, it is important that the experience is safe for both the people and the animals involved.

If a whale or dolphin approaches your boat and it is safe to do so, you can stop the boat and let the animal continue to approach.

If the whale is within 300 metres of your boat, the legislation requires that you make ‘no wake’ and that you operate your boat at 6 knots or less. If a dolphin approaches your boat it may be because it wants to bow ride. The legislation allows for this, meaning you are not required to slow down as you would for whales. But any change to speed or direction should be done gradually so that it doesn’t disturb or harm the dolphin.

How will the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) ensure people are following the rules?

EHP will provide information on the new regulations to the whale watching and broader community to ensure everyone on the water is aware of their obligations around marine mammals. This will be followed by ongoing community education to maintain awareness.

EHP will also implement a compliance plan and intends to work collaboratively with other government departments to monitor and investigate potential breaches of the legislation.

What is a special management area?

The new regulations provide flexibility for EHP to declare and manage a special management area if the location meets criteria that are specified in the legislation. For example, further regulating commercial marine mammal watching in significant marine mammal mating and calving areas, or reducing speed limits in areas where a high risk of boat strike is identified.

The existing ‘Whitsunday whale protection area’ is a special management area which has an increased approach distance (300 metres) for boats around whales because the area has been identified as a mating and calving area for humpback whales.

What is a special management marine mammal?

Under the new legislation, a special management marine mammal declaration could be made for a whale, dolphin or dugong that meets specified criteria such as a calf separated from a group of marine mammals or an injured whale.

To reduce harassment, and ensure the safety and wellbeing of the animal and people around the animal, a special management marine mammal declaration can vary minimum approach distances, and vessel speed limits around the declared animal.

The existing special management marine mammal declaration for predominantly white humpback whales, such as ‘Migaloo’, where the minimum vessel approach distance around these animals is increased to 500 metres to minimise harassment, is an example of how such a declaration can be used.

How will I know if a special management declaration has been made?

The legislation requires EHP to advertise a special management declaration in the Government Gazette, in a newspaper and on the department’s website.

Do I have a say in whether a declaration is made?

Permanent special management declarations such as the Whitsunday whale protection area, and the predominantly white humpback whale declaration, are described under the Nature Conservation legislation. Any new permanent declarations would be subject to public consultation prior to being made, similar to other legislative amendments and proposals.

The ability to make temporary declarations is there so that EHP can respond rapidly to an emerging situation. A temporary special management area declaration can occur initially for a period of up to 60 days and can be extended by 120 days. The legislation requires EHP to advertise the proposed extension in newspapers and on the department’s website, and consider any submissions received before making the extension.

A temporary special management marine mammal declaration can be made for a period of up to one year. If you notice a marine mammal in distress call RSPCA Qld on 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264 625). The RSPCA will notify the relevant government department of the situation and if necessary a special management declaration could be made.

How is dolphin feeding managed?

The government is committed to providing for the continuation of the Tin Can Bay dolphin feeding activity (PDF, 212K) in an environmentally responsible way.

The new legislation authorises this activity under the Nature Conservation legislation, providing certainty for its continuation, while ensuring the feeding is conducted sustainably under specified conditions of operation.

EHP has negotiated new conditions of operation with the operator of the Tin Can Bay feeding program and these conditions have been given a legislative head of power as a means of providing a legally robust basis for authorising the activity on an ongoing basis.

Authorising the Tin Can Bay activity under law also ensures EHP can respond effectively to deal with any unauthorised dolphin feeding activities that may arise in Queensland.

Dolphin feeding is only permitted as part of an approved program, with programs operating at Tin Can Bay, and at Tangalooma Island Resort, Moreton Island.

Last reviewed
15 July 2016
Last updated
14 May 2013