Pacific Unites to Support a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary

By Rowena Singh

VAVA’U, Tonga, July 10, 2001 (ENS) – Whale watching is a valuable legacy that many in the Pacific hope to pass on to their children. It is a vision shared by Felipe Tonga, educator and guide with Whales Alive! And Melinda Sea Adventures in Vava’u, Tonga. “I have a son now seven years old,” says Tonga. “His first whale watching experience was at three years of age, and now he knows practically everything about whales.”

Whale watching and related tourism activities provide new business opportunities for many small island nations in the Pacific. The whale watching industry in the community of Vava’u, Tonga, contributes an estimated US$1 million each year to the national economy. Tonga, Niue and Cook Islands are all direct whale watching countries, while in French Polynesia, American Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia, the whale watching is opportunistic. Other countries, such as Kiribati, are exploring ways to embrace whale watching as an ecotourism industry. In late July, Felipe Tonga will attend the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in London, England to speak up for his large friends of the ocean, against the commercial whaling that threatens their existence. Boats can be seen moored in Vava’u, Tonga, an archipelago of 71 Tongan islands.

Delegates representing more than 40 countries will converge in London, and for the second year the IWC will vote on a proposed South Pacific Whale Sanctuary.

The sanctuary was first proposed by Australia and New Zealand as a designated area with a permanent ban on commercial whaling. The proposed sanctuary covers a vast stretch of ocean from Papua New Guinea halfway to South America, and from the Equator down to the Australian island state of Tasmania. It would add thousands of square miles of protected ocean to the two existing sanctuaries - one in the Indian Ocean and the other in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

But Japan maintains that the current moratorium on commercial whaling that has been in force since 1986 should be lifted in order to protect whales. Japanese Fishing Agency representative Joji Morishita told the BBC last week that this would deter pirate whaling, and would give the International Whaling Commission  complete control of the hunt. Japan’s position is the opposite of the Pacific Island countries’ vision of a sanctuary for whales in the South Pacific. Since 1993, 16 nations from the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia have expressed their desire for the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary at the annual Pacific Islands Forum.

According to Pio Manoa, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace in Suva, Fiji, “Pacific traditions are based on the principles of working in harmony with nature. Countries here have always relied on marine life for sustenance so taboos are often placed on the breeding grounds of marine creatures during breeding season, and custom forbids fishing around this time.

“Whales are an intricate part of the Pacific’s heritage, and creation of this sanctuary is an extension of this Pacific conservation custom, as the whales primarily travel to the Pacific for breeding,” Manoa said. With a royal decree, the King of Tonga banned whaling within Tongan waters in 1978. The ban carried historical weight according to Felipe Tonga, “Whaling was never part of the Tongan tradition and was initially introduced by Captain Cook. The fact that all of Tonga is totally against whaling is reviving a positive aspect of the Tongan cultural heritage.”

The convenor of the Papua New Guinea National Environmental Watch Group, Wep Kanawi, points out that commercial fishing only started in the area a few decades ago, while “whale species have been in the country for million years and will be in the country forever and a day.

“We have to preserve them so that our future generation can have the opportunity to see a species that is watched worldwide,” said Kanawi. The sanctuary is designed to protect the breeding, mating and birthing grounds of all species of great whales found in the region: the blue fin, sei, southern right, pygmy right, humpback, Bryde’s, minke and sperm whales. Some of these species are already on the endangered list, due to commercial whaling.

The sanctuary would protect the giant cetaceans and also promises economic opportunities for the people of the South Pacific, as Pacific Island nations work regionally and nationally to build whale watching into a thriving industry.

Whale watching has already become a booming global tourism industry, contributing some US$1 billion to the world economy annually, according to a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Whale watching boat set out from Kaikoura, New Zealand to view sperm whales.

Mick McIntyre of IFAW says a sanctuary in the South Pacific could be used as a regional marketing tool for whale watching and the conservation of whales. “The South Pacific Whale Sanctuary would be effective through regional cooperation and smaller islands all working together. It would allow better marketing options for whale watching.”

IFAW says that whale watching has the potential to grow steadily each year. Its 1998 figures show that 1,195 tourists went whale watching in New Caledonia, most of them Japanese. Research for 1999 shows numbers were up to 1,984 people taking 141 whale-watch related cruises in New Caledonia. The direct economic value from whale watching in that year reached 13 million French Pacific francs (US$91,650)

If the Pacific Ocean sanctuary proposal is rejected in London this month, the future of this promising industry could be threatened by a return to full scale commercial whaling. Last year, at the IWC meeting in Adelaide, Australia, dramatic events led to the blocking of the initial proposal for a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary.

While the proposal had the backing of a majority of IWC member states, the votes of six East Caribbean nations blocked its adoption.  All six nations: Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Dominica and Grenada, receive substantial overseas financial aid from Japan.

Whale dives into the sunset off Kaikoura, New Zealand. Japan is one of the main opponents to the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary and is using so-called “aid diplomacy” to convince East Caribbean IWC members to vote against the proposal. Atherton Martin, the former Dominican environment minister and IWC delegate, was alarmed at Japan’s use of aid to manipulate Dominica’s voting at the IWC. Martin resigned from his government last year after being replaced as IWC commissioner.  

Japanese vote buying at the IWC was also discussed at a Pacific Forum on the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary in Apia, Samoa in April.  Tongan Member of Parliament, Samiu Veipulu, told the forum that he had received visits from Japanese delegations to talk about “whaling and Japanese grants to Tonga.”

“I refused to discuss grants in the context of whaling because the two are totally separate,” said Veipulu. “Sometimes donor countries try to tell us what to do, and it is time for us to tell them we can do it ourselves in the South Pacific.”

Pio Manoa, Greenpeace Pacific’s oceans campaigner argues the interests and aspirations of developed nations like Japan continue to undermine regional efforts to protect and conserve marine mammals. Japan has also made claims that whales are a threat to fish populations needed for human consumption. Participants in the Apia forum dismissed these claims, acknowledging a lack of significant scientific evidence for this position in the Pacific Islands region.

Pio Manoa thinks the Japanese are playing on fears in an effort to resume large scale commercial whaling in the South Pacific. “It’s a tactic aimed at raising doubts about the sanctuary in the developing nations in the Pacific who rely on the sustainability of their fisheries resources for their livelihood.”

“The biggest threat to Pacific’s fish populations comes from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing by distant water fishing nations such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China and the European Union,” Manoa said.

Meanwhile, the people of the Pacific hope for an ocean sanctuary, a protected area for their precious whales. Felipe Tonga speaks for many when he says, “My strongest motivator is so my son and all the other children will have these whales to enjoy and appreciate for many years to come.”

They hope the Caribbean Islands and the rest of the world will respect this voice when they vote on the sanctuary in London later this month.