It’s a whale of an issue
By Cherelle Jackson
The term 'Whale Puddle' was coined as a joke, by an Australian conservation worker who was having a go at the names of environmental projects in the Pacific region.
We were trying to figure out a Conservation International project on oceans, and upon hitting a mind blank said: "Yes, it's the Whale Puddle project."
The joke however got me thinking about whales, and their role in our society.
Apart from the occasional feast meat, whales and dolphins are important to the cultures, legends, traditions and heritage of many Pacific Island peoples.
This is according to the Whale and Dolphin Action Plan (WDAP) under the Pacific Regional Marine Species Programme.
WDAP notes that in Fiji, sperm whale teeth have particular cultural significance.
Migrations of whales are used as an environmental cue on some islands, and ceremonies and ritual surround cetaceans across the region.
In some traditions, they are viewed as incarnations of humans.
But cultural significance is not the only reason whales are worth protecting.
According to Pacific marine experts, whales and dolphins are an important component of the marine biological diversity of the Pacific Islands region.
WDAP states that over half the world’s known species of whales and dolphins are found in this region, and for some species, such as humpback whales, the region is a vital breeding area.
“Whales and dolphins are widely regarded as flagship species for Pacific marine ecosystems, and feature prominently in promotional tourism material. Many Pacific Island cultures have legends about whales and dolphins, and the people have traditional uses for them. These species are generally long-lived and have low reproductive rates.”
Unfortunately the whale population in the Pacific is under threat.
Commercial whaling during the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, largely by countries from outside the region, has reduced the breeding populations of South Pacific whales to extremely low levels, possibly to local extinction for some species.
This is according to a report by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).
Scientific whaling on minke, fin, and humpback whales is of specific concern.
SPREP says that climate change poses a potentially a high threat to whales, dolphins and their habitats in the region through the potential disruption of ocean circulation, temperatures and other factors.
“Recently, many Pacific Island countries and territories have declared whale sanctuaries or marine sanctuaries for marine animals including whales and dolphins.”
According to SPREP the population status of virtually all species of whales and dolphins in the Pacific
Islands region is unknown. The exception to this is for the South Pacific humpback which was recorded at approximately 80,000.
Fortunately there are efforts in the Pacific to protect the whale, and recently Tonga and Tuvalu joined the cause by signing a Memorandum of Understanding for the conservation of cetaceans and their habitats in the Pacific islands region.
Under this MoU, whales and dolphins are recognised as an integral part of the marine environment connect ecosystems and cultures and should be conserved for the benefit of present and future generations. It also encourages countries to implement the Whale and Dolphin Action Plan, the goal of which is to conserve whales and dolphins and their habitats for the peoples of the Pacific Islands region.
“While it is based on mutual understanding that we will cooperate to protect the whales and dolphins in our region, it does come under the CMS which is a United Nations Convention, thus providing wider recognition”.
So with any luck the Whale and Dolphin Action Plan will make a difference to the protection of these two species.