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Whales Find Islands of Safety in the South Pacific

September 08, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AVARUA, Cook Islands — Combating Japan's effort to resume commercial whaling in the South Seas, island nations and territories across the South Pacific have begun creating a patchwork of whale sanctuaries to protect the giant mammals.

During the last year, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Niue have banned whaling in their territorial waters. Environmental activists hope that other nations, such as Fiji and the Solomon Islands, will follow suit.

In some cases, the sanctuaries are huge. Extending 200 miles from shore, they comprise the same area as the islands' territorial waters, known as exclusive economic zones.

French Polynesia's whale sanctuary, for example, is 1.9 million square miles, more than half the size of the United States.

Although there has been little whaling in the region for decades, advocates say the sanctuaries will help protect whales if Japan tries to expand what it calls "scientific" whaling into the South Pacific.

The havens would also provide long-term protection for the animals should Japan succeed in rolling back the International Whaling Commission's 16-year-old ban on commercial whaling, sanctuary advocates say.

"Having declared a whale sanctuary makes it harder for any whaling country to go in there, and it gives people a sense of pride that they have done their part to help save the whale," said Mike Donohue, a New Zealand Conservation Department whale expert and a leading sanctuary advocate.

The recent sanctuary designations add to the areas of the South Pacific that have been off limits to whale hunters since Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Tonga banned whaling in their territorial waters in the 1970s.

The Cook Islands, an autonomous territory of New Zealand 3,000 miles south of Hawaii, started the recent wave of whale protection last September when it declared its 700,000-square-mile exclusive economic zone a haven for whales.

"We are closely attached to whales," said Cook Islands Environment Minister Norman George. "We hate them to be hunted and slaughtered. We just love whales."

Despite their small landmasses, many of the island nations are spread out over vast distances, and their territorial waters make up much of the South Pacific.

Altogether, the newly protected region covers 4 million square miles, an area larger than Europe.

The World Wildlife Fund, which is spearheading the sanctuary movement, hopes to persuade all Pacific island nations and territories to ban whaling in their economic zones by 2004.

"It is important to protect the Pacific Ocean, as it is both the migratory route for whales on their way to their feeding grounds in the southern oceans and the breeding ground for these great mammals," said Dermot O'Gorman of the World Wildlife Fund in Fiji.

There was little whaling in the South Pacific until the whaling fleets of the United States and other northern nations began hunting the giant mammals here in the 19th century.

By the 1960s, the great whales of the South Pacific were nearly wiped out, the vast majority of them killed by fleets from the Northern Hemisphere.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission enacted a moratorium halting the hunting of whales. But the commission still allows whaling by indigenous hunters for subsistence or cultural purposes. It also allows Japan to carry out its limited whaling and to kill more than 400 whales a year. Norway, which rejects the moratorium, continues to hunt whales commercially.

In the early days of whaling, the kingdom of Tonga was a major base for U.S. ships. The foreigners taught the natives to hunt the animals near their islands.

One technique favored by the Tongans was to use a harpoon with a stick of dynamite attached. The hunters would spear a calf and tether it to their boat. When the mother came near, a whaler would light the fuse on the dynamite and harpoon the larger whale.

In 1978, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV declared an end to whaling in the kingdom. Since then, whale watching has become one of the island's biggest tourist attractions.

In the late 1990s, the king rejected a proposal by Japan that Tonga resume whaling under the guise of subsistence hunting in exchange for increased foreign aid. One Japanese proposal called for the killing of as many as 150 whales a year.

The International Whaling Commission established whale sanctuaries in the Indian Ocean in 1979 and in the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica, in 1994. In 2000, New Zealand and Australia proposed the creation of a sanctuary covering the South Pacific, but the proposal was defeated.

The South Pacific whale sanctuary won the support of more than 60% of the member nations but fell short of the 75% needed for approval.

Whale advocates have been lobbying the Pacific island nations to declare their own sanctuaries.

"I think it's an idea whose time has come," Donohue said. "Japan has greatly increased its vote in the past four years. If the moratorium goes, at least we've got our sanctuaries."

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