Prime Minister Dr Robert Woonton’s role in setting up a whale sanctuary within the country’s vast Exclusive Economic Zone has earned recognition from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).
This week Dr Woonton was presented with an award on behalf of the Cook Islands at a “Gift to the Earth” celebration in Auckland, New Zealand. This event was co-hosted by WWF and the New Zealand government.
The award was presented by WWF vice-president, Sara Morrison, who presented similar awards to Fiji, French Polynesia, Niue, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Australia and New Zealand.
The celebration was held during a lunch at the Carlton Hotel in Auckland on August 13 – the day before the official opening of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Guest speakers included New Zealand’s Minister of Conservation, Hon Chris Carter, who revealed that at a meeting before the award presentation, Dr Woonton and Nuie Premier Young Vivian had suggested setting up a taskforce to promote and explore new ways of achieving wider protection of whales in the South Pacific.
Five nations had given their support to the taskforce, including the Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, and New Zealand, he said.
So far 11 Pacific countries have established national whale sanctuaries covering over 28 million square kilometres km of ocean, creating what the WWF describes as “a blueprint for whale conservation and the management of shared marine resources all over the world.”
Dr Woonton said the ultimate aim was to establish a regional sanctuary and he was convinced most Pacific countries would eventually back the concept, not just for the economic benefits, but for the cultural tie with the whales. That tie was of more value than short-term monetary gains from tourist activities such as whale-watching, he added.
The South Pacific Ocean is the world's largest marine habitat, containing critical breeding grounds and migratory routes for 11 of the world's great whale species. The Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Niue, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Australia and New Zealand have either declared their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as whale sanctuaries or are taking action to protect whales through national legislation.
Eleven great whale species are known to occur in the South Pacific region. Almost all of these species have been commercially hunted in the region and as a consequence the blue, fin, right, humpback and sperm whales are the most severely depleted.
"WWF applauds the governments of the Pacific for making this commitment to guarantee the future of these special animals, the cultural traditions and values they embody, and the region's living marine resources," said Dr Susan Lieberman, director of WWF-International's Species Programme.
“These sanctuaries will help ensure threatened whale populations recover. Combined with a well-defined management plan, they will help ensure that vulnerable whale populations can recover and will serve as an invaluable tool for marine conservation and development, including ecotourism and fisheries management.”