Whale in Wellington harbour

Image: Freya Hjorvarsdottir | DOC

Introduction

Latest advice from DOC to Wellington City Council about the rescheduled Matariki fireworks display planned for Wellington Harbour this weekend.

Date:  13 July 2018

Update 13 July 2018

DOC has provided the following updated advice to Wellington City Council today about the rescheduled Matariki fireworks display planned for Wellington Harbour this weekend. 

“Our latest information is that the southern right whale has been outside the harbour, on the south coast near Lyall Bay for the past three days, moving slowly west.

“While it is possible the whale may return to the harbour over the next 24 to 48 hours, from its recent behaviour this seems unlikely.

“If the whale does return, the advice we supplied to Wellington City Council last week remains the same. We still recommend Council consider the same actions in their planning for the fireworks event this weekend.

“In addition, if the whale does return, and the fireworks go ahead, DOC supports extending exclusion zones in the inner harbour to mitigate the risks to boats and to the whale should vessels get too close.”

Update 5 July 2018

Media statement from our Marine Species Threats Manager and the advice provided to Wellington City Council about Matariki.

Media statement

We appreciate there’s a keen public interest in the welfare of the southern right whale spotted in Wellington Harbour this week. Concerns sparked that this whale would be negatively impacted by the Matariki fireworks display Wellington City Council have planned for Saturday. We consulted with experts from DOC and the University of Auckland to determine what the risks were, their significance, and if they were possible to mitigate.

Our primary concern is increased vessel traffic, including risk of vessel strike and increased underwater noise from vessels. Our experts’ opinion is that the noise of the actual fireworks will be significantly muted underwater and is unlikely to harm the whale.

We made some suggestions to WCC around whale location, vessel restriction and responsible boating behaviour to minimise the vessel traffic risk. These included monitoring the whale’s whereabouts – if it’s in the northern or eastern portions of the harbour, the display will pose little risk compared to if it were in direct view of the launch barge – limiting number of vessels in main on-water viewing locations if the whale is confirmed to be near, reducing vessel speed and applying extra caution and maintaining the required legal distances.

Not only is there a risk to the whale from vessels, there is also a risk to smaller vessels, and non-motorised vessels especially, if the whale is breaching which it has been seen to do over the past few days.

Our latest information is that the whale was spotted this morning near the InterIslander Ferry Terminal, and there is still no reason to believe that its behaviour is unusual or it’s under any duress. We do want to reiterate that whale watchers need to keep at least 50 m away from the whale and no more than three vessels and/or aircraft should be within 300 m of any marine mammal. ‘Vessel’ includes boats and kayaks.

We supplied this advice to Wellington City Council today for them to take into consideration when making their decision. We will not be giving media interviews at this time.

Give the whale space Media release 5 July 2018

Full advice provided to Wellington City Council 

Risk to whale in Wellington Harbour from Matariki fireworks display on Saturday evening

The Department of Conservation has discussed the potential risk of the Matariki fireworks display with experts from DOC and the University of Auckland. There are two sources of risk to the southern right whale during and surrounding the fireworks display:

  • the fireworks themselves, in particular the sound produced by them,
  • the increased vessel traffic, including risk of vessel strike and increased underwater noise from vessels. 

Firework display

  • Expert opinion is that the risk of noise from fireworks injuring the whale is negligible due to reduction in sound levels which will occur at the air/water barrier. 
  • Some noise may be audible to the whale. Whales are used to living in a world of sound and frequently hear natural and human-generated sounds.  
  • Although this noise is unlikely to harm the whale, we cannot be certain how it will respond to these novel sounds. It is possible that the whale may become more acrobatic in response, increasing risk to itself and any vessels nearby.

Vessel traffic

  • As the fireworks display is likely to attract a significant number of pleasure-craft to the area, the risk of vessel strike to the whale is heightened. As the event will be occurring after sundown, this risk is even higher due to reduced visibility.
  • Not only is there a risk to the whale from vessels, there is also a risk to smaller vessels, and non-motorised vessels especially, if the whale is breaching which it has been seen to do over the past few days.  
  • With responsible boating behaviour, we believe this risk can be minimised.  

Mitigation if WCC decide to proceed

  • We recommend monitoring of the whale’s position throughout the day on Saturday prior and up to the scheduled display to inform decision making. If the whale is known to be in the northern or eastern portion of the harbour then you can be confident the display will pose little risk to the whale. The Council can work with DOC, the Police, and the Harbour Master on monitoring throughout the day.
  • If the whale is in the direct vicinity of the barges when the display is due to begin, you may wish to consider other options, including delaying or cancelling the display.
  • We recommend implementing a reduction in vessel speed to 5 knots within the harbour if the whale is known or suspected to be in the area. Vessels should also look out for the whale before engaging their engine, and drive with caution for the duration of the evening.
  • Council should consider whether they wish to take steps to limit the number of vessels on the water if the whale is in the immediate vicinity of the main on-water viewing spots for the display.
  • WCC must make it clear to Matariki spectators on the water that they need to maintain a 50 m distance from the whale and collectively, no more than three vessels and/or aircraft should be within 300 m of any marine mammal. ‘Vessel’ includes boats and kayaks.

Wellington City Council should consider public perception and iwi views in their decision making.

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