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March with us in Tāmaki Makaurau on June 8. For the whales...

As we take on the government's  fast-track bill, which could allow wanna-be seabed miners like Trans-Tasman Resources to dig up the South Taranaki Bight, a group of dedicated marine scientists are continuing their investigation into one of the key species that live there: Aotearoa's unique population of pygmy blue whales.

When Dr Leigh Torres gave her evidence to the now-cancelled EPA hearings into TTR's application, she emphasised the research her team has done over the past ten years on the blue whales: they've published ten peer-reviewed papers.


Our blue whales are unique to the area: they have been found nowhere else.  Dr Torres detailed how their recordings on hydrophones across the Bight found whale calls that they've not been able to find in any other area, including the Antarctic.  The whales bring their young to the bight, they breed there and they feed on the krill there.


The latest expedition was earlier this year, when they found no whales in the Bight. Dr Torrs told the hearings it was "actually quite scary to be honest. The environment was very different. We didn't find any krill either, really. It was full of salps, which are these little jellies. Again, these animals are already dealing with a lot of environmental impacts just from climate change, to be honest, so adding in this other stressor [like seabed mining] I think is quite risky."

TTR's plans for mining the Bight: the current 66sqkm application is the "Cook South" section on the left

The seabed mining operations in the South Taranaki Bight would not be limited to just the 66 square kilometres in TTR's first application. The company's 100% owner, Australia-based Manuka Resources, has set out its plans that include a massive, over 800 square kilometre area for seabed mining.


How would any fast-track process deal with this? What would be the cumulative impacts of decades-long mining operations on these whales, already potentially impacted by the marine heatwaves brought by climate change?


And this is not only the impact from seabed mining on blue whales.  Dr Torres also noted the the ongoing impact of the 24-7 noise from the mining.  Whales are susceptible to low-frequency sounds, and the mining, for the whales, she said, would be "like living next to a vacuum cleaner for 35 years."




On the last day of the hearings in March, our witness, seabird expert Professor John Cockrem of Massey University dropped what I thought was an absolute bombshell about the kororā, the little blue penguins that he's spent years studying.  


He explained how they put trackers on the little blue penguins who live on Motuara island in the Marlborough Sounds. During nesting season, one bird stays on the nest while its mate goes out foraging for food. If its mate doesn't return on time, the kororā is forced to abandon its nest, leaving either its eggs - or the chicks - to die.

A Marlborough Sounds kororā. Image © Rob Lynch


They tracked these little penguins swimming over 100km, all the way to feed at the Patea shoals, a  species-rich area of reefs and shoals off the South Taranaki coast, and back again. It's a long trip, but clearly worth it for these little birds.


What would be slap bang between the penguins and their feeding grounds in the Patea shoals? The seabed mining grounds, with their noisy machinery, sediment muddying the waters, and general chaos in the marine environment.


The impact on this population of kororā could be devastating.


Fast track expert panel unlikely to get the full picture


Under the new fast-track legislation, the expert panel set up to hear a potential seabed mining application would be prohibited from hearing evidence like this, evidence brought by KASM and Greenpeace.  


Instead, they'd hear from TTR's vastly less experienced expert who himself admitted that the company had not commissioned any full marine mammal surveys. Ever. In turning down TTR's first application (in 2013), the EPA advised the company that doing these surveys would certainly help it understand the life it would be impacting.  But TTR didn't do surveys for the next application (in 2016), and still hadn't done it by the time this hearing began in March this year.


TTR's evidence referred to a study that had been modelled on a few sightings recorded by the Department of Conservation. This is what Dr Torres had to say about their models:


"... they are at a very broad scale, and much too broad to be applied to understand the potential occurrence patterns within the various small scale TTR study area or even that region of the Northern Taranaki Bight... ... those models are made at an annual basis. So, it's one map per species per year and at a very large spatial scale..."


"It's like seeing a mean temperature map for all of the North Island for a year and then using that to try and predict what the temperature might be in Wellington on a certain day, the two different types of data aren't compatible for their application.""I don't think [these models] are appropriate to be applied to understand the potential occurrence of species at risk within the Taranaki Bight," she said.


And yet under the proposed Fast Track Bill, TTR would be able to present its own evidence to convince an expert panel, unchallenged. The expert panel would not get to hear John Cockrem talking about the impact on blue penguins, they would not get to hear Leigh Torres talking about the impacts on whales.


March for nature, march against the fast track bill

This is why we cannot let the Fast-Track bill go ahead. And This is why we'd love you to join us on the streets of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland next month - in Aotea Square at 1pm on June 8.


March with us. Say no to the fast-track bill.

Sign up here for the whales, the penguins and for all the communities of our beautiful North Island west coast who love our ocean. Sign up and share, bring your friends and whanau. We want this to be a big one! By Cindy Baxter, KASM Chairperson


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