Abstract Volcano-tectonic earthquakes at White Island are concentrated in a single seismically active zone, southeast of the active vents and at depths of less than 1 km. A few deeper earthquakes also occur beneath the active vents. A composite focal mechanism indicates that the stress regime in the shallow seismic zone is N-S extensional. Shallow seismicity occurs within the main volume of the volcano-hydrothermal system that underlies the Main Crater floor, and we interpret this as a region where the rocks have been weakened by past magmatic intrusions, elevated pore fluid pressure and physico-chemical effects of acid volcanic fluids, thereby allowing preferential seismic failure. Brittle seismic failure within this region requires a temperature less than about 400 °C, and implies high horizontal temperature gradients close to the active craters and fumaroles. Spasmodic bursts events are also a result of brittle failure, but occur close to zones of significant permeability in response to changes in local fluid pressure.