Press Release - Auckland, 18 April - Several Pacific islands have received recognition awards from the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC) for leadership in establishing whale sanctuaries in their national waters.

The awards were presented by New Zealand's Minister for Pacific Island Affairs, the Hon. Georgina te Heuheu and Her Royal Highness, Princess Pilolevu of Tonga, who hosted a formal public event in Auckland to celebrate work done to date in the conservation of whales in Oceania.

In Oceania, Australia, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Niue, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu have officially declared nation-wide Marine Sanctuaries for cetaceans in an effort to protect whales and dolphins in these areas.

"People of the islands are associated with the ecosystems in which they live and conservation of these ecosystems and the life in it is part of our culture and essential to our economic well-being," said the Hon. Steven Kalsakau, Vanuatu's Minister for Agriculture, Forestry, Quarantine and Fisheries, speaking on behalf of the group of Pacific islands receiving the awards.

"We are proud to be able to be a part of whale conservation efforts, even as we deal with pressing issues of climate change, food security and other development issues."

The Minister added that the sanctuaries must be upheld and supported by all nations if conservation of whales and their eventual recovery was to become reality.

Vanuatu has established legislation under its Fisheries Act protecting whales in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

"Taking a long-term perspective in the conservation of whales, and, in fact, all our ocean resources, is actually an imperative for small island nations," said Ms Eleni Tokaduadua, Principal Conservation Officer with the Fiji Department of Environment.

"Our islands rely to a large extent on marine resources for our economic development and the establishment of sanctuaries for whales in our waters offers opportunity for development of initiatives such as whale and dolphin watching tourism".

Tonga, which banned whale hunting in 1978 by Royal Decree of the late King Taufa'aha Tupou, has a multi-million dollar tourism industry, based on whale watching.

Mr Lui Bell, Marine Species Officer for the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), said that the 10 sanctuaries coupled with legislation, for example those of Tonga, New Zealand and other states, was an excellent start in the whale conservation initiative. The marine sanctuaries were established between 2001 and 2005.

"The efforts of these countries have resulted in millions of square kilometres of EEZs becoming marine sanctuaries involving whales in the Pacific," he said.

Mr. Bell added however, that more work was needed to ensure that all sanctuaries have legislation and management plans in place to help realize the goal of seeing the recovery of the different whale populations in Oceania.

The humpback whale population in Oceania was re-classified on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species in 2008 as an endangered species as their numbers have not been shown to increase sufficiently despite the current moratorium on hunting these species.

Presentations made during the Ocean Voices: Lessons from the Whales event highlighted threats to whales other than hunting, which include marine pollution, destruction of feeding grounds and ship and boat strikes.

"These are threats that we can all work together to address," said Mr. Bell. He added that the SPWRC was working with SPREP and Pacific countries and territories to develop the Oceania Humpback Whale Recovery Plan, under SPREP's Regional Whale and Dolphin Action Plan 2008-2012, which will seek to address these and other threats.