Pacific Indigenous leaders have a new plan to protect whales. Treat them as people

For Māori conservationist Mere Takoko, “losing one whale is like losing an ancestor.” The animals “taught our people about navigation across the Pacific, particularly across the Milky Way… And this is information that was given to our ancestors.”

The environmental activist from the small town of Rangitukia, on New Zealand’s east coast, is spearheading a movement of Indigenous groups in the Pacific pushing to protect the magnificent marine mammals, inking a groundbreaking treaty to make them legal persons with inherent rights.

The document is part of a multi-pronged effort to safeguard whales, which also includes quantifying their monetary value as carbon-depleting “bioengineers of our oceans”, and deploying the latest tech to track boats that harm them.

While the declaration is non-binding and would still need government recognition to become law, conservationists hope personhood will lead to enhanced protection for these creatures, with many species endangered.

“Our mokopuna (grandchildren) deserve an ocean brimming with life, where the melodies of whales echo across the vast expanses,” Māori King Tūheitia Pōtatau said at the signing of the treaty in the Cook Islands. Along with the Māori of New Zealand and groups from the Cook Islands, Indigenous leaders from Tahiti, Tonga, Hawaii, and Easter Island signed the He Whakaputanga Moana treaty.

Mere Takoko (right) signs the He Whakaputanga Moana declaration in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. - Josh Baker/Conservation International
Mere Takoko (right) signs the He Whakaputanga Moana declaration in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. - Josh Baker/Conservation International

According to the document – whose name means Declaration of the Ocean – granting personhood to whales ensures them freedom of movement without enduring “mental suffering caused by human activities,” and the entitlement to inhabit a healthy environment “free from pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, ship strikes and climate change.”

March’s signing came at a time when six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, with an estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins falling victim to fisheries bycatch each year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Some whale species, such as the North Atlantic right whale, have dwindled to fewer than 360 individuals.

“We are seeing unprecedented rates of decline in our whales,” said Takoko, who serves as vice president of Conservation International Aotearoa and the leader of the Hinemoana Halo Ocean Initiative, which aims to recover populations of “sacred species.” Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand.

A descendant of the Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau a Apanui and Rongowhakaata tribal Nations, the expert in climate change and Indigenous tribal development has previously acted as a senior advisor to the New Zealand government.

In the coming months, she plans to engage with various countries throughout the Pacific to discuss whale personhood legislation. She said she hopes for further progress at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Samoa in October, which will be attended by Britain’s King Charles III.

Takoko and her team are confident the initiative will succeed, and there is precedent. In 2017, the Māori gained legal personhood for New Zealand’s Whanganui River, after a decades-long fight.

Since then, there has been an increase in efforts to improve the river’s condition. In 2023, authorities broke ground on a multimillion-dollar port project aimed at reviving the river’s health and restoring activity in its harbor, CNN affiliate RNZ reported. Additionally, a 17-member strategy group composed of Indigenous leaders, mayors, conservation groups and others was established to promote the health and well-being of the river and secure government investment.

In responses to CNN, New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Cook Islands’ Office of the Prime Minister both noted that the He Whakaputanga Moana has been developed by indigenous groups, separately from their respective governments.

“New Zealand has domestic legislation in place that provides for the full protection of whales. Internationally, New Zealand remains a strong advocate within the International Whaling Commission for the protection of whales and the moratorium on commercial whaling,” said the Wellington ministry.

The Cook Islands office said it had “yet to receive a formal submission” from indigenous leaders on the declaration’s implementation.

For the campaign to achieve personhood for whales, Takoko has assembled an international group of experts.

Māori King Tūheitia Pōtatau and Tou Travel Ariki, Cook Islands President of the House of Ariki, at the signing of the He Whakaputanga Moana declaration in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. - Josh Baker/Conservation International
Māori King Tūheitia Pōtatau and Tou Travel Ariki, Cook Islands President of the House of Ariki, at the signing of the He Whakaputanga Moana declaration in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. - Josh Baker/Conservation International

Michelle Bender, the effort’s Seattle-based legal counsel with Ocean Vision Legal, says assigning whales personhood doesn’t exactly mean they have the same rights as humans. She clarifies that personhood provides entities with certain rights and responsibilities under the law.

“It’s about recognizing that these living beings have intrinsic value and are worthy of protection, regardless of what people might find beneficial and how we might use that element of the ecosystem,” Bender told CNN.

“With personhood, human interests do not automatically trump the interests of whales… their needs are to be given serious consideration in the decisions and disputes affecting their health.”

Whale-safe ocean

Before human activities and whaling, scientists say the oceans were filled with 4 million to 5 million whales. Now they estimate the oceans have just a little over 1 million remaining.

Whale populations were decimated by commercial whaling in previous centuries and while that has now mostly stopped, Japan is a Pacific nation that continues to carry out controversial “scientific” hunts despite widespread international opposition.

Nonetheless around 20,000 great whales are killed every year by ship strikes alone, experts say. Additionally, whales are increasingly threatened by fishing net entanglements and climate change.

Global ocean heat has hit a new record high every single day for the last year, causing severe consequences for marine life.

Carlos Duarte, a world-leading marine ecologist and professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology who works closely with Takoko’s team, says more whales have been dying recently due to starvation. “Because the very warm state of the ocean has been unusual, it has actually reduced ocean productivity and the whales are not able to meet their food requirements,” he told CNN.

Aside from recognizing whales’ intrinsic worth, some experts are pushing for a dollar value to be placed on the animals, with humans held responsible for any damage to the ecological commodity.

They include Ralph Chami, the initiative’s chief economist, based in Washington, DC. Chami says such a valuation would recognize animals’ contributions to the Earth and the services they provide to benefit the economy.

A Humpback whale jumps in the surface of the Pacific Ocean at the Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park in Colombia, on August 12, 2018. - Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
A Humpback whale jumps in the surface of the Pacific Ocean at the Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park in Colombia, on August 12, 2018. - Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

“Most people are used to valuing dead nature,” Chami told CNN. “Every time I ask people at dinners, what’s the value of a salmon? They say 50 bucks, that’s my plate. They don’t think of the value of a salmon that is frolicking freely in the ocean.”

In an article published with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Chami estimates that the value of a living whale surpasses $2 million, based on the carbon it sequesters over its lifespan.

Scientists and marine experts note the crucial role of whales in the ocean’s carbon cycle, acting as fertilizer pumps by consuming nutrients from the deep sea and releasing them at the surface through defecation. This nourishes phytoplankton, which generates about half of the world’s oxygen and absorbs substantial amounts of CO2, equivalent to the capacity of four Amazon rainforests.

“People don’t realize that the Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest carbon sink,” Takoko said. “Through this initiative, our aim is to restore vital blue habitats. And the whales are a big component part of ensuring that those blue habitats can thrive because of all the services they provide as bioengineers of our oceans.”

According to Duarte, assigning whales a monetary value lays the groundwork for a system of penalties for anyone responsible for harming these animals. And with legislation recognizing whales as legal persons worth $2 million, the Hinemoana Halo team claims shipping companies and insurance firms could eventually be financially liable for whales they harm.

To hold companies accountable, Takoko and her team hope technology can be integrated into ships to prevent whale strikes and entanglements.

“Right now, we have near nothing as a solution,” Emily Charry Tissier, founder and CEO of Canadian marine mammal monitoring startup Whale Seeker, told CNN. “But the tools exist today to be able to avoid the majority of these mortality situations,” she added.

Charry Tissier and her team are paving the way by using artificial intelligence to monitor and protect marine life. She says shipping companies can deploy technology such as drones and infrared cameras to detect whales and avoid ship strikes.

The long road ahead

Ahead lies a lengthy journey for the Hinemoana Halo Ocean Initiative to ratify personhood recognition for whales.

In addition to garnering support from nations and the broader international community, the personhood initiative faces the challenge of integrating technology into existing ships. Nonetheless, the team remains optimistic that once insurers realize the potential financial liabilities, installing such technology will become imperative.

“Ships equipped with this technology could benefit from reduced insurance premiums. Their stocks are going to do better, and consumers would favor them due to their ‘whale-free shipping’ label,” Chami told CNN.

Despite the daunting task of implementing this technology across the world’s oceans, significant stretches of shipping lanes, where ship strikes and entanglements frequently occur, could be safeguarded once a few major nations enact personhood legislation, according to Duarte.

Consider the Cook Islands, for instance: Despite having a collective population of fewer than 20,000 people, its marine territory spans more than 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles). Enactment of personhood legislation by Pacific states alone would cover a substantial portion of the world’s oceans, Duarte told CNN.

The team’s optimism is further buoyed by the global community’s aspirations to protect marine life in international waters. Nearly 200 countries agreed to a legally binding “high seas treaty” at the United Nations in the previous year, pledging to safeguard 30% of Earth’s land and oceans by 2030, CNN previously reported.

“It typically takes about two decades from the introduction of these policies to witnessing their impacts and benefits. And that really points to what we need to do to achieve a healthy ocean,” Duarte told CNN.

The remarkable recovery of the humpback whale serves as a testament to the potential for oceanic restoration. Decimated by whaling between the late 1700s and the mid-1900s, the humpback has rebounded from an estimated 200 individuals to more than 60,000 today, according to Duarte. This came after a global ban on commercial whaling was instituted by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.

“If we can recover humpback whales, then we should be able to recover almost any component of the ocean,” Duarte said.

And Takoko echoed his optimism: “The fire, so to speak, has been ignited by the traditional leaders of Polynesia, and I believe with the community behind us, we will succeed in this plan.”

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