The Ministry will meet with representatives of the Koutu Nui to discuss the proposed policy and Draft Whale Encounters Guidelines.
A working group has been set up at the request of Marine Resources Minister, Prime Minister Henry Puna, to follow through on regulations for the Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary.
The group has met several times since September with the Prime Minister to inform the development of the Draft Whale Sanctuary Policy 2015.
MMR Legal and Policy Division Director Mathilda Miria-Tairea says the next step in the process is releasing the draft documents for public consultation.
“We want to meet with Te Koutu Nui this week and then take the draft policy and Draft Whale Encounters Guidelines to the public to respectfully ask for feedback and support going forward,” says Miria-Tairea.
In September 2001, government declared the Cook Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) a “sanctuary for all whales”.
At the time, Government collaborated with civil society to establish whale watching guidelines, but no legislation followed.
The proposed policy and guidelines will finally introduce enforceable protections for whales migrating through Cook Islands waters.
New regulations will apply to all whales and regulate human activity which may or may not have an impact on whales.
“We have now developed a draft policy. Regulations will be developed from that policy under the Marine Resources Act 2005. It is an important step in cementing our commitment to our whale sanctuary,” says Miria-Tairea.
Whales in the Cook Islands are a precious resource. Not only do they contribute to a healthy and diverse ecosystem, but they have been a historical part of Cook Islands culture and traditions. There are 26 known species of whales that live in and migrate through our waters.
The most widely recognised of these are the humpback whales that arrive to breed and calve during winter, from around July to October.
The regulations will benefit watercraft operators, aircraft operators, fishermen and others which may come into proximity or contact with whales, as the guidelines and future regulations will provide them with a clear understanding of permissible and prohibited behaviour.
Following the public consultation process, the draft documents will go to cabinet for approval before regulations are introduced.
The members of the working group led by MMR include representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister, National Environment Service, Marae Moana (Cook Islands Marine Park), Seabed Minerals Authority, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Natural Heritage, House of Ariki and Koutu Nui and the Aronga Mana.
Miria-Tairea has worked closely with a range of stakeholders including Whale Research Cook Islands.
She says the regulations are also important to regional conservation efforts. The year 2016 will mark the Pacific Year of the Whale. Through a specially-designed campaign the Pacific Islands aim to unite to strengthen whale conservation.
The campaign will encompass science, conservation management planning and education. Whales in the region face many threats including entanglement in fishing gear, ingestion of plastics and other marine debris, pollution, and climate change.
The first talkback session on the draft policy will be aired on Cook Islands Radio today at 11am, with Miria-Tairea and whale researcher Nan Hauser.
The Draft Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary Policy, Draft Whale Encounters Guidelines, and the Cook Islands Declaration of the Establishment of a Whale Sanctuary 2001 are now available online at http://1drv.ms/1VSZb64.
The Ministry will release dates of public consultations soon.
Updates will also be posted on the MMR Facebook page at facebook.com/MinistryofMarine.