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By Royson Willie

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, June 1) – The Vanuatu government has formally established a whale sanctuary under the Fisheries Act that was endorsed last year by Parliament and formally gazetted this year.

The Vanuatu Whale Sanctuary comprises all waters within the borders of the country.

The Act also provides protection measures, regulates by allowing for permits to be given for non-lethal research, exemption for traditional purposes in the taking of dugongs, permits for whale watching, and permits for the import or export of marine mammals for aquariums.

The legislation to provide a sanctuary for whale was to give formal recognition of the high level of protection already afforded to marine mammals in Vanuatu waters in accordance with international laws. Under the Act any person found contravening sections preventing import and export of any marine mammal part or product can be punishable by a fine not exceeding 50 million vatu [US$467,000] or face a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years or both.

Also the Act gives power to the Director the power to issue a permit for the purpose of research if he or she is satisfied that any non-lethal research is not likely to result in the killing, harming, harassing, taking, or holding in captivity. Permits can only be allowed for the import or export of marine mammals if the destination of the mammal is a public aquarium, public exhibition or a swim-with-marine mammals program for members of the public, as spelled out under the Act.

The Department of Fisheries is also understood to have amended Regulation 21 of the Fisheries Act regarding the protection of marine turtles, especially leatherbacks and any turtle species laying eggs. The use of weapons to harm, capture, kill or destroy any turtle species has also been prohibited unless exemption can be given for customary practices.

Vanuatu first formally indicated that its waters would be sanctuary for whales back in 2003 at the South Pacific Forum Meeting by then Prime Minister, Edward Natapei. While Vanuatu entered international commitments in the past for the protection of marine mammal species, especially whales, it did not have any national platform to stand on until recently.

Initially Vanuatu was part of 11 Pacific Nations to have sealed a pact creating a 28,520,000 square kilometre whale sanctuary in the Pacific. The countries involved were the Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Niue, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Australia and New Zealand who either declared their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as whale sanctuaries or were taking action to protect whales through national legislation.

The move was intended so that the nations would vote individually but as a pack against pro-whaling nations at future International Whaling Commission annual meetings.

Historically Japan has lobbied small economically vulnerable countries, to sway their Whaling Commission votes. In 2004, an attempt to formally endorse the Pacific as a whaling sanctuary fell through for the third time at the International Whaling Commission because the three quarters majority needed could not be reached with Japan and its allies including Tuvalu voting against the idea.

June 5, 2006

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