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Media Release
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment and Heritage

25 July 2001


Thank you Chairman

On behalf of Australia and the other co-sponsors, I commend to you the proposal introduced by New Zealand to amend the Schedule, and establish a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary. We agree that this will complement the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean Sanctuaries.

At IWC 50, Australia and New Zealand informed the Commission that - with countries in the region - they were exploring the possibility of a South Pacific Sanctuary. At IWC 51, we presented a paper (IWC/51/21) detailing the need for and benefits of such a Sanctuary. In response, the Commission sought the views of the Scientific Committee on the scientific aspects of the proposal. This report (IWC/52/4 Item 17) outlined a series of arguments in favour of sanctuaries and a number of counter-arguments that had arisen over the past 20 years. The key conclusion was, to quote directly from the Scientific Committee, "that the major points made in the past related to the desirability or otherwise of a Sanctuary also applied to the South Pacific proposal."

A majority of the Contracting Governments voted at IWC 52 to establish the South Pacific Sanctuary, but this number fell short of the majority required under IWC rules. The matter is now back in the hands of this Plenary.

Mr Chairman - the text of the proposed amendment to the Schedule is provided in the annotations to the Provisional Agenda - document IWC/53/2. The proposed western and southern boundaries coincide with the eastern boundary of the Indian Ocean Sanctuary south of Australia at 130E, and the northern boundary of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary at 40S. The proposed eastern boundary at 120E coincides with long-established IWC stock boundaries, and the equator forms the proposed northern boundary, as there is no known significant migration of great whales between the northern and southern hemispheres. Finally, the western boundary to the north of Australia is at 141E, along the border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Mr Chairman - the justification for the Sanctuary is fully elaborated in our agenda paper IWC/53/18, and I will not go through all those arguments in detail. However, in our discussion of the proposal with parties to the Convention and with other countries, three key themes have emerged:

I will therefore address these issues, in turn. To begin with the scientific basis of a Sanctuary: May I remind you that on two previous occasions, the Commission accepted that there was a strong scientific justification for establishing sanctuaries. The Indian Ocean Sanctuary in 1979, and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in 1994, designated ecologically coherent regions worth protecting, because they are crucial to the undisturbed recovery of great whale populations.

These decisions also confirmed the Commission's legal authority to establish Sanctuaries, under Article 5(1) of the Convention. This provides for the adoption of regulations fixing

(c) open and closed waters, including the designation of sanctuary areas; and
(e) intensity of whaling (including the maximum catches of whales to be taken in any one season).

The South Pacific Sanctuary would be the third such deed of protection accorded to great whales. The Southern Ocean Sanctuary achieves only part of the task, for whales migrate between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and their calving and breeding grounds in the South Pacific. Conservation science directs us, when protecting migrating species, to afford the highest level of protection to those habitats critical to their reproduction. The proposal before you today focuses on these breeding grounds.

Mr Chairman - there is clear evidence from the information provided to the Scientific Committee that, over the past two centuries of commercial whaling, whale populations in the South Pacific region collapsed.

The evidence suggests that populations are only beginning to recover from this massive over-exploitation. Australia, for example, has monitored the recovery of east Australian humpbacks (a species which the South Pacific Sanctuary will protect) for 20 years. They are recovering, but their population remains at a mere fraction of its natural level.

The magnitude of the statistics should be familiar to most of those present today:

Mr Chairman - we still need more information on the status of large whales in the South Pacific. The Sanctuary is the best framework to foster research and increase our knowledge, in the same way that the creation of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary stimulated major programs of ecological research looking at cetaceans within their whole environment. Meanwhile, we must deduce from the large removals last century that most populations are still depleted. All the available information shows very clearly that the whale populations of the region require protection to enable them to recover to safe levels. The question then is how best to provide that protection.

Accepted practice in fisheries management and wildlife management supports the protection afforded by the no-take zone of a Sanctuary. Protected are an accepted part of such management schemes.

In our view Mr Chairman, the depleted status of whale populations and the merit of a sanctuary as management tools adds up to a strong scientific justification for the proposal.

To move on to the extent of regional support: Australia and New Zealand have consulted extensively with the countries of the South Pacific. These consultations have revealed a regional consensus in favour of the proposal. An encouraging amount of goodwill continues to develop across the South Pacific for the Sanctuary.

The principal regional body - the Pacific Island Leaders Forum, which comprises the heads of government of all the independent states of the region - discussed the proposal at its meeting in August 1998. That Forum meeting expressed its support for the proposal as the best way to achieve the sustainable use of marine resources, while honouring its members' traditional and cultural practices. To quote from the statement, the Forum

"gave its full support to the development of a proposal to establish a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary for great whales, to complement the existing Indian and Southern Ocean Sanctuaries."

We have also consulted with the principal environmental body of the region - the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme - SPREP. At IWC 52, SPREP's Director told us of the organisation's desire for a whale sanctuary. Since then, SPREP held its 11th annual general meeting, in October 2000. Again, the Environment Ministers and officials from South Pacific states and territories welcomed the proposal. The communique said that the participants "agreed to continue to support efforts to promote the adoption of a sanctuary, whale conservation and associated eco-tourism development."

Finally, the Pacific Island Leaders Forum met later that same month and decided to hold a workshop to progress the proposal. In Apia, Samoa, in April 2001, the regional workshop reaffirmed its members' commitment to a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary. SPREP members view the Sanctuary as in their peoples' interests, because whale-watching and eco-tourism are key development opportunities. They also noted the proposal's scientific basis: the communique stated "that the recovery of severely depleted great whale species in the proposed Sanctuary area would be facilitated by the establishment of such a Sanctuary."

In this very month, another part of the South Pacific offered a haven for migrating whales to protect their recovery and to encourage whale watching. The Government of French Polynesia, a member of SPREP, announced on 4 July 2001 its intention to create a whale sanctuary within its Economic Exclusion Zone. Significantly, French Polynesia has also joined other range states which recognise that national zones of protection alone cannot adequately protect migrating whales - they must also be secure on the high seas. Thus, French Polynesia expressed its support for a South Pacific Whale Sanctuary.

My own recent travels throughout the South Pacific have left me in no doubt that the proposal has solid and strong support from governments of the countries within the area the Sanctuary would cover. In addition Mr Chairman, those countries with overseas territories in the region - France, UK and the USA - are co-sponsoring the proposal.

Every vote against this proposal is a vote to deny the wishes of the vast majority of the people of the South Pacific islands.

My third and final theme relates to this regional enthusiasm. Commercial, consumptive exploitation of whales is not economically beneficial or important to the South Pacific. Whale watching, on the other hand, is rapidly making the South Pacific a magnet for "eco-tourists", who in growing numbers are willing to pay to watch whales in their natural habitat.

To those who suggest that whale watching and whaling can coexist - at the same time and/or in the same place - I can only underline the irony behind such thinking. The people who pay to watch whales do not want to watch them being killed, nor will they support the industry if they know that the animals are migrating towards danger. Whale watching, indeed, is now a key component of sustainable coastal development. The creation of a whale sanctuary is the best signal to the rest of the world that the region stands for conserving whales and against hunting them, and this publicity should help to draw more tourists to the whale-watching industries of many islands there.

Chairman - many present today are well aware of the growth of whale watching in the South Pacific. Take the Kingdom of Tonga. In just 6 years, this industry has created a new and positive image for the whole country as a tourist destination. The Sanctuary would show that the voting members of the IWC recognise the region's commitment to the goal of long-term conservation of marine biodiversity, through the recovery of whale populations. This would offer economic benefits to island states - like Tonga and French Polynesia - by providing a level of surety to operators of whale watching enterprises and to potential investors in the region. Other management tools cannot provide this certainty.

The more a region focuses on getting economic benefits from whales without affecting their populations, the better we are all positioned to learn about the complex interactions between these animals and their ecosystems. By researching the largest marine mammals of all - in life rather than in death - we will come to understand more about the marine environment as a whole. This is especially relevant in the South Pacific, where so many peoples depend on the ocean that we share.

To conclude Mr Chairman, the proposal:

The South Pacific Whale Sanctuary warrants the support of the Commission, and I commend the proposal to you.

25 July 2001
Contact: Belinda Huppatz (Senator Hill's office) 08 82377920 or 0419258364

Commonwealth of Australia