The Department of Conservation is seeking public input into a review of Kaikoura whale watching tourism ahead of the expiry on 30 May of a 10-year suspension of new permits for the commercial activity.

Date:  29 March 2012

The Department of Conservation (DOC) is seeking public input into a review of Kaikoura whale watching tourism ahead of the expiry on 30 May of a 10-year suspension of new permits for the commercial activity.

The review will determine how commercial whale watching off Kaikoura is to be managed in the interests of the sperm whales, including the level of tour activity permitted. Decisions will take into account the findings of new scientific research into the impacts of commercial whale watching on the sperm whales, public comments, and the requirements of the Marine Mammals Protection Act and its regulations.

An international team of marine mammal experts carried out research for DOC over two years, from 2009 to 2011, on the impacts of commercial whale watching on Kaikoura’s sperm whales. The research report and a report of DOC's preliminary findings and draft recommendations are now publicly available for people to comment on by Friday 27 April 2012.

Currently, one company, Whale Watch Kaikoura Ltd, has permits for boat-based commercial whale watching off Kaikoura. Three operators have permits for viewing whales as part of scenic flights: Wings over Whales, the Kaikoura Aeroclub and Kaikoura Helicopters.

DOC South Marlborough Area Manager David Hayes said the DOC preliminary report recommended allowing a small increase in boat and aircraft whale watching.

‘The small increase proposed is precautionary. It is considered likely to be sustainable for the whales based on the researchers’ conclusions that the observed changes in whales’ behaviour from current tour activity are small and minor.

‘The draft recommendations propose allowing an increase of up to three whale watching boat trips per day and two additional aircraft being allowed to view whales. The opportunity to obtain marine mammal permits for the additional activity would be tendered.

‘These are draft recommendations only and public comments will be taken into account in preparing a final report and recommendations for decisions.’

The researchers observed three changes in whale behaviour. When boats were present the whales breathed slower, there was more variance in their changes of direction and the whales began to echo-locate slightly later once underwater.

These changes occurred when boats and boats and aircraft were present, no matter how many there were, but changes in whales’ surface behaviour were not apparent when only aircraft were there.

‘The observed effects on whales appeared to be less than a decade ago when research on the impacts of commercial whale watching on the Kaikoura whales was last undertaken,’ said Mr Hayes. ‘The 2002 declaration to not allow new permits was based on the changes in whale behaviour seen in that previous research and the researchers’ recommendation commercial whale watching activity not increase.

‘The team that carried out the latest research suggest a factor in less effects now being observed may be changes in the whale watch fleet over the years. The jet-propelled boats now solely in use are relatively very quiet underwater.

‘Very good adherence by whale watching operators to the regulations for operating around whales was also considered to lessen observed effects on whales.’

Background information:

  • Decisions on the management of permitting of commercial whale watching are made in line with the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 and the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations 1992 which focus on the conservation, management and protection of marine mammals. Under the legislation, socio-economic factors such as commercial competition are not relevant and cannot be taken into account.
  • The previous research, carried out by an Otago University team, recorded several changes to sperm whale behaviour in the presence of vessels. The changes included faster breathing, decreased surface time, more frequent and larger changes in direction, and making vocal clicks later following a dive.
  • Sperm whales are widespread and relatively common worldwide. They are thought to live for 60-70 years.
  • Sperm whales occur off the Kaikoura coast year-round, feeding in the region of the offshore Kaikoura Canyon and its associated trenches and troughs. The make-up of the sperm whale population off Kaikoura helps to make it reasonably resilient to tourism effects. Its members are nearly all non-breeding single males. Some are semi-resident, staying for weeks or months, and others are transient, passing quickly through Kaikoura’s waters. Only a small number from a large population are off Kaikoura at one time.

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David Hayes, DOC South Marlborough Area Manager, ph: +64 3 572 9100

Trish Grant, DOC Nelson Marlborough communications advisor, ph: +64 3 546 3146

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