Whales Now Safe Within 200 Miles of Fiji

SUVA, Fiji, March 26, 2003 (ENS) - The government of Fiji has declared the island nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to be a whale sanctuary. The decision establishes the Fijian Whale Sanctuary within the 200 nautical mile EEZ. The sanctuary covers 1.26 million square kilometers of waters used by migrating humpback whales for breeding and calving.

The declaration was widely applauded by conservationists and Pacific Ocean governments. Australia, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Samoa have all recognized the need to protect whales. They have all either declared their EEZs to be sanctuaries or they have passed laws to protect marine mammals in their waters.

Australia's Environment Minister Dr. David Kemp congratulated Fiji's move, and encouraged other Pacific Island states to follow suit.


Humpback whale breaches in Fijian waters. (Photo courtesy Kiwi Wildlife Tours)
Australia worked with Fiji and other Pacific Island states at a recent South Pacific Environment Program meeting on regional marine mammal conservation, the minister said.

Dr. Kemp said the declaration also sends a strong message to the International Whaling Commission, which has failed to establish a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary by voting the proposal down for the past three years.

The March 12 Cabinet decision was based on a submission by the Minister for Commerce, Business Development and Investment Tomasi Vuetilovoni, on behalf of Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade Kaliopate Tavola, who was out of the country.

Minister Vuetilovoni said that in 2002 Pacific Forum leaders were invited to declare their respective waters as whale sanctuaries.

He added that this declaration of a whale sanctuary within Fijiís EEZ signals to the rest of the world his governmentís willingness to honor its international obligations such as the Convention on Biodiversity and the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

A Fiji whale sanctuary will help catalyze research and raise public understanding and ability to manage Fijiís marine biodiversity, the minister said.

Kesaia Tabunakawai, WWF Fiji country program manager, was delighted with the government's move. "It is great news for whales, for the Fiji people, and for the environment," she said.

In its decision, the Cabinet noted that the sanctuary would help create ecotourism ventures for the community. They predicted the sanctuary would be "a major tourist attraction as proven in Tonga, New Zealand and Australia."

The WWF agrees. Tabunakawai said, "The economic, environmental, and education benefits from conserving whales include whale watching operations, education awareness, opportunities for research, and the protection of marine biodiversity."

Whales visit the South Pacific Ocean to breed, calve, and raise their young during the winter months of June to October.

A whale survey conducted in Fiji in 2002 spotted a number of humpback whales around the islands of Wakaya, Naigani, and Ovalau, including a mother and calf in Levuka Harbour. During the last two weeks of August whale researchers, David Paton and Nadine Gibbs from the Southern Cross Centre for Whale Research, based at Southern Cross University in Australia,undertook a whale survey in Fiji with funding provided by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.


Waters within 200 nautical miles of the Fijian coast are now a sanctuary for whales. (Photo courtesy Iona College)
Paton and Gibbs found that humpback whales are still present in Fijian waters, but their numbers are "very depleted" compared to those recorded in the 1950s.

The researchers were able to make the first recording of a humpback whale song in these waters. They recorded two adult whales inside the Levuka harbor, which they said attracted great attention from the locals, and in a separate incident a mother and baby humpback whale just outside the harbor.

Gibbs said, "These whale sightings and recordings of song are very exciting as they indicate that Fiji is important as a breeding ground for these once abundant whales."

Paton said, "Humpback whale populations are being monitored in other parts of the South Pacific. Some of these populations are showing signs of recovery from the impacts of whaling during the 20th century. With protection in Fiji, which forms part of the breeding grounds, there is potential for the humpback whale numbers to slowly increase."