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Whales in a Changing Ocean Conference Marks Year of the Whale Celebrations in the Pacific

The preliminary results from the second Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) workshop in Samoa (27-31 March), have been presented at the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference held in Tonga (4-6 April). The IMMA workshop is part of a series of workshops co-sponsored by WDC, Tethys Research Institute and the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task force while the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference was hosted by SPREP and the government of Tonga and co-sponsored with the Auckland Institute of Studies and many others.

The conference formed the centerpiece of SPREP’s Year of the Whale celebrations in the South Pacific. The conference brought together leaders of Pacific Island countries with researchers and conservationists to discuss future collaborations on the conservation of whales in the region, preparatory to the renewal of SPREP’s marine species programme. During the conference, the scientific work on whales and the economic value of whales in the Pacific islands, including whale watching, was reviewed and emerging threats to whales from changes occurring in the ocean were assessed.

At the start of the conference, the government of Tonga set the tone by announcing that it was formally declaring all Tongan waters as a whale and dolphin sanctuary. This initiative aims to achieve greater recognition and protection for species that provide substantial income within Tonga and the region, and that help to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

The conference had several results of value to the region.

The country representatives formulated and agreed on a declaration to strengthen whale conservation across the Pacific. Full text of the declaration is here. Currently, 11 countries that are SPREP members have formally signed the declaration: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga and Tuvalu. These countries, as well as conference participants, agreed to cooperate to prepare the 2018-2023 Whale and Dolphin Action Plan that will provide a framework for conservation activities in the Pacific islands region.

In addition, three main recommendations emerged from the conference, based on working group sessions, in support of protecting whales and their habitats by improving scientific research, addressing threats to whales and promoting best practice whale watching. 

  1. SCIENCE: To, by December 2020, establish a validated inventory of whale and dolphin species, genetic distinctiveness and habitat use for each nation/territory of the SPREP region to improve understanding of ecological roles, economic and cultural values and better inform management.
  2. THREATS: That Pacific Island countries and territories, by 2022, enact protected areas to prevent the disturbance of marine mammals mindful of national targets, based on science and using precautionary approaches, and implement regional and national cetacean action plans.
  3. WHALE WATCHING: To establish, by June 2019, an annual whale celebration event across the Pacific that becomes a focal point for education and promoting best practice.

In addition, delegates agreed to support a regional perspective to be delivered at several upcoming international fora, notably the United Nations Oceans Conference in June.