SailGP is an “operational matter”, the Conservation Minister says, but dolphin advocates disagree. David Williams reports.

Successive conservation ministers, and their department, have failed to protect dolphins from a high-speed boat race held in a marine mammal sanctuary, opponents say.

Sail Grand Prix makes its New Zealand debut this weekend in Lyttelton Harbour/Whakaraupō, over the Port Hills from Christchurch. Nine foiling catamarans, capable of sailing at up to 100km/h, will churn up the harbour while being watched and tracked by more than 200 support boats and spectator craft.

Race organisers – working with the city’s economic agency, ChristchurchNZ, the Department of Conservation (DoC), experts, and Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke – have created a marine mammal management plan to try and limit the risks to nationally vulnerable Upokohue/Hector’s dolphins, known to frequent the area.


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Monitoring measures include land- and harbour-based observers, pre-race surveys, underwater monitoring with hydrophones, and drone surveillance “if feasible”. A proposal by SailGP to use an underwater noise device to scare dolphins away was withdrawn after advice by DoC experts.

DoC has five staff at the event and a boat on the water to respond to any incidents.

Willow-Jean Prime has only been Conservation Minister for a little over a month, continuing a revolving door of ministers since the Green Party’s Eugenie Sage was displaced by the ruling Labour Party after the 2020 election.

The SailGP race is an operational matter for the department, Prime says.

“However it is my expectation that they ensure that the SailGP race complies with the Marine Mammals Protection Act and Marine Mammals Protection Regulation, as per their statutory role.”

She adds: “I’m satisfied that DoC has worked through the risks with the race organisers who have a comprehensive marine mammal management plan, and that plan has been made publicly available online.”

“This shows a clear failure of DoC and the Minister of Conservation in their duty to protect marine mammals.” – Liz Slooten

However, retired marine biologist Liz Slooten says the Conservation Minister could have banned the race by modifying the rules of the Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary.

SailGP confirmed in January 2021 it would race in Christchurch. (At the time, Kiritapu Allan was Conservation Minister; she was followed by Poto Williams.) Anytime since, Slooten says, the sanctuary’s rules could have been changed – with a 28-day notice period – to ban the race and protect dolphins.

“This shows a clear failure of DoC and the Minister of Conservation in their duty to protect marine mammals.

“The Marine Mammals Protection Act and Marine Mammals Protection Regulations require slow approaches to marine mammals, avoiding sudden changes in speed and direction, avoiding cutting off their path etc.

“By definition, a race like this involves sudden changes in speed and direction. The proposed methods for ‘mitigating’ dolphin injuries/deaths are window dressing.

“These methods (all of which I have used extensively) detect only a small fraction of the dolphins present on the race course. They will be playing Russian roulette with Hector’s dolphins.”

Michael Lawry, managing director of conservation group Sea Shepherd NZ, says: “The sad irony is it appears the only thing that will further highlight the risk or even stop the event is a dead dolphin, either this time or next.”

Contacted for comment, SailGP declined to comment further.

Last year, New Zealand race director Karl Budge told Newsroom comprehensive protocols were in place to mitigate risk to marine wildlife, and its plan was developed after engaging the foremost local experts.

“We are confident in the efficacy of this plan and the measures laid out.”

Department of Conservation’s Mahaanui operations manager, Andy Thompson, says it will have a staff member in the race control room, and a ranger and communications advisor will be in the race area at Naval Point. Two rangers on Ōtamahua/Quail Island will help manage spectators.

“Two other staff members will be on standby to provide specialist technical advice and additional support if necessary.”

Any decision to suspend or cancel racing will be made by race organisers, not DoC.

Will marine mammals and other protected animals be safe? Thompson says: “The race organisers’ marine mammal management plan will minimise risks to marine mammals; however, it does not remove them entirely.”

People convicted of offences under the Marine Mammals Protection Act can face up to two years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

“If an incident does occur, any compliance actions DoC may take would depend on the specific circumstances,” Thompson says.

There’s an irony with DoC’s stance in Lyttelton Harbour, says Slooten, the retired marine biologist.

The department is considering speed restrictions on certain areas of Akaroa Harbour, which will mean dolphin tour vessels have to slow to 5 knots.

“DoC have already imposed even more stringent regulations in the Bay of Islands, where boats are required to stop in certain parts … when they see marine mammals and will have to wait until the marine mammals leave.

“For some reason there are no rules in Lyttelton Harbour, which is of course part of NZ’s first marine mammal sanctuary, created in 1988.”

Not formally briefed

The office for the Conservation Minister, Prime, says she has not been formally briefed on the SailGP race. “However she is advised that the previous minister received a high level update during a stakeholder meeting some months ago.”

In her statement, Prime says she is advised DoC and race organisers worked closely on a marine mammal protection plan “which does comply with the legislation”.

“A wide team of observers, conservation experts and monitoring technologies will be used by race organisers to mitigate any risks to marine mammals during racing.”

SailGP has asked “boating visitors” to report any marine life sightings in the event area to the local course marshal boat.

The National Party’s conservation spokesperson Barbara Kuriger says: “I expect every precaution to be taken in the running of the event and wish the very best to both the dolphins and the boating participants.

“These activities are an integral part of New Zealand life so we as people should be able to safely co-exist with nature.”

As part of SailGP’s charm offensive, a handful of young sailors are racing the Lyttelton Harbour course. The event also has a high-profile women’s pathway, and pushes sustainability and environmental issues.

This past week, SailGP teams were welcomed at a pōwhiri at Rāpaki Marae.

The main pull of the race, of course, is the high-adrenaline, fast-paced racing, likened to Formula 1 on water. Earlier this week, Kiwi sailor Phil Robertson described the yachts as “probably close to flying”.

This could spell bad news for dolphins.

Last month, Christchurch newspaper The Star reported details of a leaked, unredacted copy of SailGP’s marine mammal management plan (MMMP). It said the risks to marine mammals “will be heightened by SailGP’s training and racing activities”, and a vessel strike “is very likely to be fatal to the animal”.

An unnamed expert who helped develop the plan, told the Star: “I think the final version of the MMMP is probably not far from the best you can do, if you’ve already made a very bad decision to hold the race in a completely inappropriate place.”

SailGP is set to return to Lyttelton in 2025, in a deal costing Christchurch ratepayers millions of dollars. ChristchurchNZ, the economic agency, is pumping $3 million of cash and in-kind investment into the event.

Previously, it was estimated SailGP could lead to economic benefits to the country totalling $28 million, watched by 50 million people on TV, and attract 10,000 visitors to Lyttelton Harbour.

This past week, ChristchurchNZ told The Press newspaper more event tickets had been sold to people from outside the region than expected.

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