ENVIRONMENTALISTS are warning Warrnambool’s multi-million-dollar ecotourism industry will be put at risk by gas exploration.
Campaigners against the project off the south-west coastline fear seismic testing in the waters will cause distressing noise levels — potentially disrupting pregnant southern right whales en route to Warrnambool.
WHL Energy is preparing to carry out a seismic survey of more than a thousand square kilometres between Warrnambool and Port Campbell, pending a federal government green light.
But the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has promised to challenge the testing, warning it will have a “deafening impact” on whales and their calves.
In May this year WHL acquired the La Bella gas fields, which lie 55 kilometres off the coastline and could be worth as much as $140 million.
But IFAW has concerns testing carried out by high-pressure air cannon will disrupt the passage of southern right whales as well as blue whales, which feed in the waters. IFAW campaigner Matthew Collis said the noise generated by the testing was the same frequency used by whales to communicate and find their prey.
“It’s a dangerous game to be playing with endangered whale populations,” Mr Collis told The Standard.
“We are particularly worried because heavily pregnant southern right whales migrate through that area.”
It is unclear what impact the noise could have on either species, but Mr Collis said the marine giants might choose to avoid the area altogether.
Previous studies in North America have shown that such noises cause significant amounts of stress undermining their breeding. According to a 2011 report by the environmental group, southern right whales brought 37,000 visitors to Warrnambool, contributing $2.6 million to the economy.
“There’s going to be a significant impact for the city of Warrnambool if the whales don’t turn up,” he said.
Less than 10 days remain for public submissions on the project, with the federal environment minister Tony Burke expected to reach a decision by mid-January.
The gas fields also occupy an area known as the Bonney Upwelling — a nutrient and marine life-rich hotspot which is a critical blue whale feeding ground.
If the whales are pushed out by the noise environmentalists fear the species, which has been decimated by whaling, will decline.
Last week The Standard reported that the largest number of blue whales ever seen in Australian waters had been spotted off the Warrnambool coastline.
Mr Collis said the energy company was aware of the issue and was looking to test in April to May or November to December when whale numbers were at their lowest. However, he warned both species would begin to arrive or be at the tail end of leaving during those months.
WHL was unable to provide a comment by The Standard’s deadline yesterday.