Management implications for the changing interactions between people and whales in Ha'apai, Tonga

Megan Kessler*, Robert Harcourt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Tongans have a long history of interaction with humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) ranging from imbuing whales with religious and cultural significance to commercial exploitation, originally through hunting and later through whale watching and swimming activities. Excessive commercial harvesting, mostly outside of Tongan waters, means that the number of humpback whales in the Oceania region remains low despite a ban on commercial harvesting since 1978. Concurrently, the opportunity for fee paying tourists to swim with this endangered population is a significant source of income for the Kingdom of Tonga. The Ha'apai island group has until recently experienced only a low density of whale focused tourism compared to the Vava'u island group, but it is showing signs of significant expansion. Photographs of the animals using the Ha'apai region identified a maximum of 331 unique individuals over the period 2006-2010, which generated 26 resightings of 22 individuals. In light of the low whale numbers and the industry expansion it is an appropriate time to implement a precautionary management system in the region. This is particularly important if, as suggested here, individual humpback whales are moving through all Tongan waters meaning management changes in one area impact on the entire population. Options to minimise the impact on these animals include limiting the number of licences issued for Ha'apai and zoning activities to ensure that there are areas closed to whale watching/swimming that can act as a refuge for the animals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)440-445
Number of pages6
JournalMarine Policy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012


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