The marine environment around the Auckland Islands is unusual as it is both a marine mammal sanctuary and a marine reserve.


Sanctuary established in 1993

The first protection given to the marine environment around the islands was in 1993 when the area out to 12nm (which is the limit of the territorial sea) was made a marine mammal sanctuary.

Auckland Islands marine mammal sanctuary boundaries (JPG, 226K)

This was to protect:

  • New Zealand sea lions which breed on the islands and feed in the waters around them,
  • Southern right whales which breed in the Port Ross area during the winter.

Benefits of the sanctuary

  • The main benefit was to stop commercial fishing in the area.
  • While aimed specifically at protecting the marine mammals in the area, the ban on commercial fishing protected all other species from harvest.
  • It also aimed to further reduce the impact of other visitors on the marine mammals (this was already largely covered by other aspects of the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1978 which sets minimum approach distances etc).
  • The benefit of the sanctuary to sea lions was limited as they forage out to 100km off shore and some important feeding areas are still commercially fished. Commercial fishing can reduce the sea lions’ food supply and they can be caught in trawl nets, primarily in the squid and scampi fishery.

Moratorium on winter whale watching in 2002

To further protect the Southern right whales a moratorium on all commercial tourism at the Auckland Islands between April and October was put in place in 2002. This was to reduce the risk of disturbance to the breeding animals over the winter.

The sanctuary becomes a marine reserve in 2003

In 2003 the value of the wider marine ecosystem, including the many species of plants and animals which are found nowhere else, was recognised with the area covered by the marine mammal sanctuary also being made a marine reserve. This is unusual as normally an area can be either a marine mammal sanctuary or a marine reserve but not both.

Marine mammals

The marine mammal sanctuary protects Southern right whales, New Zealand sea lions, and a variety of seals.

Southern right whales

Southern right whales are categorised as “Nationally Endangered” under the DOC threat ranking system. They were hunted to near extinction in the waters south of New Zealand. By the 1850s their numbers had dramatically decreased and very few sightings were recorded.

Recent surveys indicate that the population is recovering, possibly increasing by around 4% per year.

During the breeding season in winter and spring, they are mostly found in the waters around the Auckland and Campbell Islands. Smaller numbers of whales had been recorded around Campbell Island for many years. However the lack of visitors to the Auckland Islands during winter meant that the growing number of whales congregating each winter went largely undetected.

There is not currently an accurate estimate of the number of Southern right whales that visit the Auckland Islands each year. Photo-identification work indicates that many whales pass through Port Ross on their way north or south. Years of surveying are required to determine the present day population.

Whale research

2009 was the last year of an intensive four year study on Southern right whales at the Auckland Islands. The work focused on population size, population dynamics and movement patterns.

This study followed up on a similar study taken place in 1995-1998 and also tied in with a wider project carried out around mainland New Zealand which showed that some of the whales visiting the Auckland Islands also visited the mainland during their annual migration.

A lower level research programme is planned by the University of Otago for 2010-2012. This programme will collect more information from the whales at the Auckland Islands including:

  • arrival and departure times
  • sound recordings of individual whales
  • identification photos of individual whales 

Photo identification is possible as Southern right whales have distinctive callosities (clusters of small amphipods which feed on the skin) on their heads which are unique and can be used like finger prints.

New Zealand sea lions

The Auckland Islands are the stronghold for the threatened New Zealand sea lion (formally known as Hooker’s sea lion).

The three major breeding colonies are found at the Auckland Islands. Around 85% of all pups are born on Dundas Island, Enderby Island and Figure of Eight Island.

Sea lion research

There has been a research programme working on New Zealand sea lions at the Auckland Islands for over 25 years. Researchers study population dynamics, feeding and breeding behaviour and the impact of humans through fishing and disturbance.


The Auckland Islands have a significant population of New Zealand fur seals. Both elephant and leopard seals visit the island regularly depending on the season.

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