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Southern right whale expedition 2009

Date:  01 September 2009

The Department of Conservation (DOC) and its research partners have discovered new links between southern right whales from the Sub-antarctic Auckland Islands and the mainland of New Zealand.

Southern right whale.
Southern right whale

A Southern right whale research expedition to the Auckland Islands has just been completed, as part of the Australian/New Zealand Southern Ocean Research Partnership. This 4-year project has been run by the University of Auckland and the Australian Antarctic Division, with support from DOC, Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade and the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute. The latest voyage was a multi-national effort, involving scientists from New Zealand, Australia and Chile.

“This year’s survey off the Auckland Islands collected DNA samples from 242 whales, a record number,” said Steve Smith, DOC’s marine mammal national coordinator . ”Recent results from research conducted by the University of Auckland has resulted in four genetic matches between the Sub-antarctic islands and the New Zealand mainland.

This finding suggests that the two  regions are connected by migratory movement and may be come from one historical New Zealand population, estimated to have numbered more than 28,000 whales before whaling .”

The species was hunted extensively along the New Zealand coast from the beginning of the 19th century. The current population is estimated less than 1% of its original size.

The results gained from this expedition coupled with DOC’s mainland New Zealand research project should give a better understanding of the relationship between the whales seen around the mainland and those from the sub Antarctic.

The work involves researchers taking photographs for comparison with identification catalogues, retrieving tissue samples for genetic analysis and collecting other vital information from the whales.

By 1935, when right whales were protected from hunting, they were on the verge of extinction.

“Recent population estimates show that southern right whales have recovered to 10% of their pre-exploitation (whaling) population and are recovering about as fast as we can expect, however they still have a long way to go,” said Mr Smith.

Each year the Department of Conservation calls on the public to keep an eye out and report sightings of southern right whales. Since May 2003 an average of 70 southern right whale sightings are reported by members of the public each season.

Any southern right whale sightings should be reported immediately on the DOC hotline, 0800 DOCHOT (0800 36 24 68).

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