NUKU’ALOFA-April 4: 2.31pm (Environment): The Government of Tonga has reaffirmed its commitment to the Royal Proclamation of His Majesty King Tupou IV in 1978, by re-declaring that all Tongan waters is declared a Sanctuary for Whales.
The reaffirmation was announced by the Acting Prime Minister, Hon Siaosi Sovaleni while speaking as the chief guest at the opening of the Whales in a Changing Oceania conference here at the Tanoa Dateline Hotel in Nuku’alofa this morning.
Hon Sovaleni said that the ban against the hunting and killing of whales in Tongan waters also remains in force.
“Additionally, the Kingdom of Tonga will persevere with its commitment to providing sanctuary to, and protection of, whales,” Hon Sovaleni said.
The late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV declared the Royal Decree in 1978 after it was identified that whales Tonga were close to extinction.
Since the Royal decree, which banned the hunting of whales in Tongan waters, the Tongan breeding populations have recovered from less than 50 to more than 2000 whales.
“It is said, this is one of the world’s great conservation success stories,” Hon Sovaleni said.
The Royal Decree was further supported by the introduction of the Fisheries Act 1989, which called for prohibition of killing of cetacean animals – whales and dolphins, and the enactment of the Whale Watching and Swimming Act in 2009.
Hon Sovaleni said that for the past 40 years, the Government of Tonga has been in the forefront of a deliberate effort to protect and conserve the whales in the South Pacific.
He said whales are at the centre of many Pacific cultures and added that Tonga has special links to whales.
“Centuries ago, whales guided our ancestors in their voyaging canoes to landfall, and their regular appearance in our coastal waters to breed and give birth is still a significant event,” he added.
Tonga has been identified as the most important country in the Pacific islands for humpback whales and the winter home for half of the entire population of breeding humpback whales between New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
He said whales are ecologically, culturally and economically important for Tonga and the wider Pacific.
Tonga has one of the fastest growing whale watching industries in the world, which is expanding and injecting millions into the Tongan economy each year.
But Hon Sovaleni said that despite that, whales are not saved and they still face many threats, including climate change, bycatch in fisheries, and whaling.
Tonga has been working closely with regional partners – the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) – and other international partners who provide the scientific research and advisory capacity towards the conservation of the cetaceans mammals and their habitats in the Pacific region.
Hon Sovaleni said that since 1982, when the Tonga Visitors Bureau, Vava’u Tourism Association and the Tonga Whale Watching Operators Association held the Kingdom’s first whale watching workshop hosted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, work on savings whales has been ongoing here.
In 2008, a workshop funded by New Zealand and co-chaired by the then New Zealand High Commissioner, Christine Bogle, and Her Royal Highness Salote Pilolevu Tuita, put forward recommendations which included the push for the Government of Tonga to consider the declaration of a whale sanctuary.
The Minister of Fisheries Hon Semisi Fakahua had welcomed delegates and participants to the conference earlier and extended Government’s best wishes and gratitude that theyw ere able to make the visit to Tonga.
Tourism Minister Hon Semisi Sika said Tonga appreciated the chance to host the event and gather everyone together to come and discuss the best way forward to protect and safeguard the region’s whale population.
SPREP’s Director General Kosi Latu had also earlier shared SPREP’s hopes and aspirations, adding that a Declaration at the end of the workshop would be a big step towards consolidating the regional effort to safeguard whales in our oceans.
New Zealand High Commissioner Ms Sarah Walsh and Australia’s Mr Andrew Ford also spoke at the opening and shared their respective country’s best wishes for the conference.
The Tupou Tertiary Institute choir sang at the opening ceremony.
The conference will continue over the next three days, with scientists and researchers also here to present reports on whales in the region.