In late 2020, the Department of Conservation mulled whether to cut the looming summer research programme to the subantarctic islands.

On the one hand, halting this complex and high-profile field work would mean missing a breeding season for nationally significant species, including New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka, and three species of albatross – Antipodean, Gibson’s and white-capped.

On the other, there were the threats of Covid-19, not just of infection but the prospect of sudden lockdowns, and considerations of health and safety when taking a large group, confined to a navy frigate, to a remote area hundreds of kilometres away.

Another factor seemed to cast a long shadow over deliberations: DoC’s fragile finances.

A memo was fired off to two DoC bosses, aquatic director Lian Butcher and southern South Island operations director Aaron Fleming, in September 2020, seeking a “timely decision”.

Uncertainties might pose “significant financial and logistical pressures”, which would be difficult to plan for “especially within the current economic climate”, the memo said.

Public health measures might mean essential staff and contractors, drawn from around the country, were prevented from going. Such last-minute and costly cancellations could compromise the programme, the memo warned.

The possibility of last-minute extractions from the islands had to be factored in.

“Given that Covid has health and economic implications both nationally and internationally, it will not be possible to foresee all possible scenarios,” the memo said. “Additionally, the necessary contingencies may impose significant additional cost pressures on the programme.”

From a scientific point of view, a year of data for a range of species would be lost. “These data generally feed into demographic models which help inform conservation prioritisation,” the memo said. “The loss of a year of data will reduce the modelling’s predictive ability however will not overall result in these models being redundant.”

Another potential problem, labelled “perceptions risk”, was the news would be “negatively received by researchers and stakeholders”. “Early and targeted communications” would help mitigate this risk, the memo said, aided by “improved multi-year planning” to demonstrate long-term objectives for marine species weren’t being compromised.

It turns out the programme was in a state of flux. Several aspects were under review, and the subantarctic research strategy was being updated. (The latest version on the department’s website is from 2005.) Therefore planning was being done on a year-to-year, somewhat ad hoc basis.

Funding was mentioned again, because several projects were funded “in part by cost recovery from the commercial fishing industry”, which had already discussed the “tough financial environment they are operating within”.

On the flipside, an early call to “stop work” would make it easier to free up “significant resources”, such as the costs of a charter vessel and personnel, for other projects on the mainland.

They included: increased monitoring of sea lion and hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) on the mainland and Rakiura/Stewart Island; more money for Wildlife Hospital and Penguin Place; incorporating mātauranga Māori into threat management plans for sea lions and hoiho; and funnelling money to kaitiaki ranger roles in Murihiku/Southland and coastal Otago.

“Many of these new opportunities have the advantage of being highly visible and provide opportunity for job creation in local communities and with Treaty partners.”

The September 2020 memo, released under the Official Information Act, didn’t record the result. But a response to Newsroom from Elizabeth Heeg, who was the department’s aquatic director, said the research programme was cancelled “due to health and safety considerations around Covid-19, and the difficulty of extracting or caring for staff on isolated islands”.

“Subantarctic research is considered fundamental to support the long-term health of the Subantarctic Islands and their rare species,” Heeg says. “These islands are one of the last places in the world where these ecosystems are in a near-pristine condition.”

The risk with changing priorities, however, is in a crisis they can become embedded. “Fundamental” translated to expendable, as parts of the next season of research was put on the chopping block.

Subantarctic data broken down by the Aquatic Unit’s Science research programmes in the past give financial years. Source: Department of Conservation

Heeg’s response noted the pandemic’s hit on DoC’s baseline.

“In 2021/22 our revenue has reduced by about $19m due to the drop in international visitors and lockdowns,” she wrote.

“Like all government departments, the department is expected to live within its means and regularly review work programmes and re-examine priorities.”

Sure, the department’s annual baseline had increased $200 million over four years, but much of that was ring-fenced for specific work, such as the jobs for nature project.

Figures provided by the department show how lumpy the aquatic science unit’s subantarctic programmes have been. Spending ranged from $506,000 in 2017/18 to $1.48 million two years later. Only $303,000 – mostly on seabirds research – was spent in the Covid-affected 2020/21 season, and this year’s spending to February 11 was $211,000.

Some marine-related research in the subantarctics last summer was “postponed” because of “budget reprioritisation”, Heeg said, “due in part to the impact of Covid-19 on revenue and rising cost pressures”.

Campbell Island sea lion monitoring work was postponed, which was not likely to cause any long-term impacts. Meanwhile, a series of other research projects on Antipodes, Adams and Disappointment Islands were being undertaken by independently funded researchers.

The department provided a briefing penned last November, which weighed cuts to the subantarctic summer programme.

Leaving it so late added weight to the memo: “Due to the proximity to the planned start date of the season, the continued uncertainty around funding availability due to present organisational financial pressures means an increased risk that the department will be unable to deliver the season.”

This time, the briefing reached the bigwigs in Wellington. The memo – requesting urgent “stop/go” decisions – was written by Heeg, southern South Island operations boss Fleming, and Brent Beaven, director of Predator Free 2050, to two deputy director-generals: Mike Slater (operations) and Marie Long (biodiversity).

The considerations were similar to the 2020 memo, but central were “significant financial pressures on the department”. Commitments to protect species, recorded in international agreements and management plans approved by ministers, were seemingly diminished in the rude, red glow of budget cuts.

The aquatic unit had already chalked up a $55,000 saving by halting plans for a sea lion research trip to Campbell Island, the memo said. “The present aquatic unit subantarctic season represents a ~$450,000 investment in research and conservation actions.”

(If the season was cancelled, a further $140,000 from the conservation services programme would be returned to the commercial fishing industry.)

Slater and Long were told the planning costs already incurred were “negligible”, as they could be largely recouped in coming seasons “through better organisational preparedness”, including already bought field equipment and personal protective equipment.

The 2021 memo regurgitated the previous year’s conservation talking points, about a loss of demographic data reducing modelling’s predictive ability, but not making the model redundant. It also repeated the risk cancellation would be “negatively received by researchers and stakeholders”.

Subantarctic work was planned for this year by the Predator Free 2050 national eradication team, the memo said – a $179,000 Auckland Island cat trial, paid for by the international visitor levy. But it was independent of the aquatic unit and therefore recommended for separate consideration.

Another consideration was Operation Endurance, a joint expedition involving Conservation, the Navy, and MetService, which might allow some sea lion research to occur on Enderby and Campbell Islands.

On November 16, eight days after receiving the memo, Long, the deputy director-general of biodiversity, agreed to cancel the aquatic unit’s summer field season, “directing the associated resources towards addressing organisational cost pressures”, while continuing with the Auckland Island cat trial and planning for Operation Endurance.

Slater, the deputy director general of operations, endorsed the plan on November 24.

A moral and legal responsibility

It could be argued important field work on nationally significant issues fell victim to rising costs, and the department’s Covid-related revenue losses. But critics believe the department has its priorities wrong.

WWF-New Zealand’s marine species programme manager, Dr Krista van der Linde, says it’s the country’s moral responsibility – and a legal obligation on the department – to protect highly threatened species. Given changes related to climate change, long-term monitoring is essential.

“When we’re dealing with threatened populations, it’s data that we can’t afford to miss,” she says.

“I can see that DOC has reallocated some of those funds to other programmes of work, which is great. However, there is a generalised, lacking in funding from the government to threatened marine species.

“We find that a few of our top marine species, like Māui dolphins, may get some attention but there are a lot of other animals which are listed on the threatened list – or even animals that are considered what we call data deficient, which means we don’t really know a lot about them, they could be threatened, but we don’t even know – and they never even get a look in.”

Sue Maturin, a seabird advocate who recently retired from environmental lobby group Forest & Bird, says the subantarctic islands are a World Heritage site, and the only places in the world where some of our most threatened albatross and seabirds breed. They’re also a stronghold for NZ sea lions.

Some of these important species are likely to become functionally extinct within our lifetime, she warns via email.

“We owe the world to carry on with regular research and monitoring in the subantarctics. Without regular monitoring we don’t know if we have missed a major event that might have caused a decline in chicks or pups or adult survival.”

Ellie Hooper, Greenpeace Aotearoa’s oceans campaigner, says in an emailed statement: “With so much of New Zealand’s biodiversity under threat, it’s a bad sign to see these cuts to funding. We don’t know nearly enough about our marine species, and with an estimated 50 percent of our ocean life found nowhere else, we have an obligation to understand and protect these creatures.”

“From my point of view, it is heartbreaking that that data series has been so majorly disrupted.”
– Louise Chilvers

The budget cuts also seem to break promises the department made to ministers five years ago.

In July 2017, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy announced a five-year threat management plan to protect the New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka.

To measure progress, breeding sites on the Auckland Islands, Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku, Stewart Island/Rakiura, and Te Waipounamu/South Island, were to be monitored – and not just for pup counts. About two-thirds of pups are born on the Auckland Islands.

The 2014 monitoring survey, in which 1575 pups were estimated to have been born on the Auckland Islands, was the third-lowest count since the surveys began in 1995. Between 1998 and 2009, pup counts on the Auckland Islands declined by 50 percent – from 3021 to 1501.

(The 2020 estimate was 1740 pups.)

Concerns over the 2014 count and the declining trend prompted work on the threat management plan.

Its objectives were to halt the sea lion population’s decline by this year, and ensure the population is stable or increasing within 20 years, achieving a “not threatened” status for sea lions.

Louise Chilvers, a Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Massey University, used to run the department’s research into New Zealand sea lions on the Auckland Islands.

She was lead author of a paper published in the journal Aquatic Conservation in 2017 about the conservation needs for the New Zealand sea lion. The paper said pup production estimates and tagging were important techniques to monitor the species. The other main technique was resighting marked, known-age individuals. This enabled robust estimates of survival, recruitment, movement, and reproduction rates.

Other than at the Auckland Islands, those techniques had not been undertaken consistently enough to allow for rigorous population estimates at new breeding areas, or the second-largest breeding area on Campbell Island.

“Concurrently, the time and effort spent resighting tagged individuals at the Auckland Island population has decreased by half in the last four years.”

Chilvers tells Newsroom: “New Zealand doesn’t have any land mammals except for bats, and so our marine mammals are really important, because they’re pretty much the only mammals we have. And most of those mammals, are long-lived, slow-breeding animals, so to be able to really monitor that population, it has to be long data series.

“From my point of view, it is heartbreaking that that data series has been so majorly disrupted.”

(In 2019, rāpoka were listed as threatened – nationally vulnerable, an improvement from the previous classification of threatened – nationally critical. Chilvers says: “That’s an anomaly of how that system works.”)

The technical advisory group of the NZ sea lion/pakake/whakahao threat management plan met last month. Publicly available minutes show the group agreed multi-year funding for sea lion research was needed.

In a box tracking “measures of success” on Auckland Islands, the pup count for 2021 was listed as unknown, but the 2022 count was coloured green for “on track”. Adult female survival rates and pup survival rates, which are meant to improve under the plan, are listed as unknown for every year since 2017.

Pup counts and mortality rates on Campbell Island are unknown for the last two years. An explanatory note says: “No data due to budget reprioritisation which resulted in elements of the subantarctic field season being cancelled.”

Barry Weeber, co-chair of the Environment and Conservation Organisations of NZ, asked the advisory group meeting if there were plans to extend the length of subantarctic trips “and improve data collection”.

Kris Ramm, manager of DoC’s mountains to sea team, responded subantarctic trips “are increasingly challenging”. He threw this additional curveball: “With the government’s focus on reducing carbon we are investigating options like remote sensing.”

Given the department’s enormous use of helicopters on the mainland, this seems an interesting argument, to say the least – and, perhaps, another sign of the department’s muddled priorities.

At least someone in the room showed common sense.

Shona Sangster, of Rakiura, who chairs the Southland Conservation Board, suggested tourism concessionaires to the islands should reduce their impact before conservation researchers are made to cut their carbon footprint.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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