Whales Just Gained Personhood Here

Polynesian Indigenous groups sign treaty they hope will lead to greater protections
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 2, 2024 12:26 PM CDT
Whales Just Gained Personhood Here
This photo provided by Samuel Lam shows a humpback whale and her calf in Rurutu, French Polynesia, in September 2022.   (Samuel Lam via AP)

Whales are people, too, according to the Indigenous leaders of New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands, who've acted to bestow personhood on whales. New Zealand's Maori and other Indigenous groups from Polynesia signed a treaty that recognizes all whales as legal persons as part of an effort to seek greater protections for the animals, which the Maori view as their ancestors. The strategy has worked before. In 2017, New Zealand granted personhood to the Mount Taranaki volcano and the Whanganui River, which the Maori also view as ancestors. The status has "been invoked to slow or overturn development projects and to force consultation with local groups," per Phys.org.

This action comes from the Indigenous groups themselves. Maori King Tuheitia Potatau te Wherowhero VII and 15 chiefs from groups in Tahiti and the Cook Islands gathered to sign the treaty dubbed He Whakaputanga Moana, or "declaration for the ocean." In a rare public statement, King Tuheitia said the treaty "is not merely words on paper" but "a woven cloak of protection for our taonga, our treasures—the magnificent whales," per the New York Times. "The sound of our ancestor's song has grown weaker, and her habitat is under threat, which is why we must act now," he said.

Whales are protected in only certain areas, like the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Maori conservationist Mere Takoko tells the Times. Armed with this treaty, Indigenous groups can enter talks with national governments to develop legal frameworks to enforce greater protections, he says. "When you recognize a whale as a legal person," it means "you can endow them with certain rights," Ralph Chami, the project's head economist, tells the Times. "And with that comes a responsibility that if you hurt or bring harm to a whale, then there are remedies." The project, with $100 million in funding, is expected to press for damages from shipping companies whose vessels strike whales. That means insurance companies could require ships to be equipped with anti-collision devices. (More whales stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.