Photos: Humpbacks
Indigenous South Pacific leaders have officially recognized whales and dolphins as legal persons. The cetaceans now have inherent rights - such as freedom of movement, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to thrive alongside humanity. Pictured here are two humpback whales swimming in Tongan waters.- Photo: Pexels; Elianne Dipp

Indigenous Pacific Island leaders officially recognized cetaceans (whales and dolphins) as legal persons in a new treaty, “He Whakaputanga Moana,” (Declaration for the Ocean).

In March, Māori King Tūheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII from Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tou Travel Ariki, kaumaiti nui (president) of House of Ariki from the Cook Islands, elders, and other leaders from Tonga, Tahiti, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) signed the treaty at the April declaration ceremony in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

Whales now have inherent rights, such as freedom of movement, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to thrive alongside humanity. With this treaty, the giant of the seas will be protected in South Pacific waters by legislation and its habitat secured.

“He Whakaputanga Moana is not merely words on paper. It’s a Hinemoana Halo, a woven cloak of protection for our taonga – our treasures – the magnificent whales,” King Tūheitia said.

“We can no longer turn a blind eye,” said Kaumaiti Nui Ariki. “Whales play a vital role in the health of our entire ocean ecosystem. Their decline disrupts the delicate balance that sustains all life in Te Moana nui a Kiwa. We must act with urgency to protect these magnificent creatures before it’s too late.”

He Whakaputanga Moana draws upon the traditions of Te Ao Māori (Māori worldview) and emphasizes the interconnectedness of all living things. Recognizing the urgent threats whales face from unsustainable extractive practices, pollution, and climate change, the declaration outlines a comprehensive plan for their protection – including establishing marine protected areas and implementing rāhui (customary restrictions guided by ancestral wisdom).

While not a binding international treaty, the He Whakaputanga Moana declaration, based on customary law, still carries significant weight. Already, it has sparked a global conversations about the legal and ethical status of whales.

Whales are a key part of an initiative to embrace Indigenous values and protect nature as a viable and sustainable solution to climate change.

“Whales aren’t just resources to be exploited, but sentient beings and our ancestors,” said Mere Takoko, vice president of Conservation International Aotearoa, and a descendant of Maui and Paikea. “My whakapapa (genealogy) is intricately woven with the moana (ocean); its mana (spiritual essence) flows through me,” she said in an online article (atmos.earth).

The treaty will allow Māori and other Indigenous groups to start talks with governments in Aotearoa, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and other Polynesian countries to develop a legal framework to enforce protections around whales.

Calling He Whakaputanga Moana a “declaration for future generations,” King Tūheitia said in his speech at the declaration ceremony, “Our mokopuna (descendants) deserve to inherit an ocean teeming with life, where the songs of whales continue to resonate across the vast expanse.”

The government in Aotearoa previously granted legal personhood to the Te Urewera Forest in 2014, and to the Whanganui River and Mt. Taranaki in 2017.

Mauna Taranaki, named Te Kāhui Tupua, holds the same legal rights as any individual human being, including the ability to own assets, appear in court, and make submissions. The purpose of this legal recognition is to protect the mountain’s interests and enhance its mana.

The Whanganui River is recognized as an indivisible and living whole, with its own rights and interests. The legislation aims to protect and restore the health and wellbeing of the river ecosystem.

These acts reflect the growing respect for Indigenous knowledge systems and their significance in environmental protection on a global scale.

“The sound of our ancestor’s song has grown weaker, and her habitat is under threat, which is why we must act now,” King Tuheitia emphasized. “Let this declaration be a turning point. Let us ensure the whales, our kin, our pouwhenua (guiding posts), continue their migrations for generations to come. Kia ora, kia kaha! (Be well, be strong!)”