Monday’s $US1 million SailGP championship race in San Francisco was about momentum and control.

Lifting a catamaran’s average speed relies on keeping the agile craft’s hull above the water, on the foils, to reach speeds of up to 100kmh.

Australia claimed their third consecutive title in the three-boat showdown, pipping New Zealand in a thrilling end to the international sailing event’s third season, generating breathless sports headlines.

What didn’t halt the race’s momentum – from a public relations perspective – was news of a Department of Conservation (DoC) investigation into the SailGP race held in Lyttelton Harbour/Whakaraupō, across the Port Hills from Ōtautahi Christchurch, in March.

(The harbour is part of the Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary, and home to the nationally vulnerable Upokohue/Hector’s dolphins.)

Questions are now being asked about whether there was an element of control about when details were released about the investigation.

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Newsroom was sent the barest information about it late on Monday afternoon; many hours after the finale finished (NZ time).

The clue in DoC’s Official Information Act response – delayed by an extra seven days – was information was being withheld under a section of the act which says releasing it would “prejudice maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation, and detection of offences”.

At 8am yesterday, we sent questions, including: when was DoC notified of the alleged incident; which law might have been breached; and why the public wasn’t notified earlier.

DoC responded, at 4.45pm, it wouldn’t be able to provide a response.

But after being told Newsroom still intended to publish a story, the department provided an emailed statement from Mahaanui operations manager Andy Thompson: “An investigation is in its final stages and it’s expected we will have an outcome tomorrow.”

He added: “No animals were harmed during the event.”

Genevieve Robinson, a committee member of Māui and Hector’s Dolphin Defenders, applauds DoC for launching an investigation. But she’s concerned about the lack of detail, and that the department didn’t proactively reveal the probe’s existence.

“I just hope that it comes to some fruition rather than being swept under the carpet.”

Upokohue/Hector’s dolphins are known to be inquisitive, and interact with vessels. Photo: Supplied

Newsroom also sent questions yesterday to SailGP, and ChristchurchNZ, the city’s economic development agency.

We wanted to know if there were deficiencies with the event’s marine mammal management plan, and how the investigation affects plans for SailGP’s next event in Whakaraupō in 2025.

Our questions went unanswered, however, because SailGP staff are travelling back from San Francisco, and ChristchurchNZ’s key events spokespeople are attending the travel trade show TRENZ.

(ChristchurchNZ’s last press statement, from last week, was titled ‘Ōtautahi Christchurch Proud To Welcome Back The World’, while the agency’s last SailGP press statement was put out on March 10, before the race occurred.)

Leading up to the Lyttelton race, experts and conservation advocates – like Robinson – expressed concerns about the danger to Upokohue, and their young, from the super-fast catamarans and the huge number of support and spectator boats.

SailGP’s marine mammal management plan, aimed at avoiding dolphin injuries and deaths, was put together by an advisory group chaired by Yvette Couch-Lewis, of Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke Rāpaki.

The plan was reviewed and approved by the board of ChristchurchNZ, which is paying millions of dollars, in cash and in-kind, for the hosting rights.

This potential conflict gave rise to an accusation dollars were being put before dolphins, in a bid to promote Christchurch to the race’s TV audience.

DoC’s investigation adds a new dimension to that debate.

The paucity of information has Robinson, who is a regional councillor, scratching her head.

“How can we make the right decisions if we don’t know the information?”

Minister briefed ahead of race

More information about the SailGP event in Whakaraupō can be gleaned from official information released to Newsroom in recent weeks.

In November last year, Robinson, the dolphin advocate, met then Conservation Minister Poto Williams to discuss the race.

A ministerial briefing from DoC, ahead of the meeting, said all vessels involved in the event, including support boats and spectators, were expected to abide by legislation.

Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act and marine mammals protection regulations, it’s illegal to harm, harass, injure or kill marine mammals. The harbour is home to native wildlife, including seabirds, fish and marine mammals.

“It has been made clear to the event organisers that DoC’s role is to advocate for the protection of marine mammals, and to act as a compliance or regulatory agency if any issues involving protected wildlife were to occur.”

In March, the department’s eastern South Island operations director Jo Macpherson wrote a status report which landed on the desk of new Minister Willow-Jean Prime after the SailGP race had concluded.

Macpherson said DoC’s concern was the possibility of upokohue appearing on the SailGP “racecourse”, and the potential for an incident, such as a boat strike.

“It is not known how the dolphins will react to this type of event.”

During the race, DoC had staff on the water and in the race control centre.

DoC drafted a media statement to release if a boat struck and killed a marine mammal.

“Our compliance team will be investigating the incident,” the mocked-up statement said. “It is too early to say whether DoC will be taking compliance action or what that might look like. This process will take some time.”

“The concern is that the Faunaguard device may add extraneous noise into the environment, and might not actually do anything useful.” – Anton van Helden

Under the marine mammal management plan, the “primary protection” was using trained dolphin observers on land and water, triggering measures such as a halt or delay to racing. Already, the event had been moved to late summer, when dolphin numbers were expected to be lower.

SailGP wanted to use an extra measure – an underwater noise device – to scare dolphins, but scrapped those plans after receiving advice from the Department of Conservation.

Documents released to Newsroom reveal details of a proposed, SailGP-funded feasibility study of the device, which required a marine mammal research permit from DoC.

The proposed device, an Ace Aquatec FaunaGuard Porpoise Module, hadn’t been tested on Hector’s dolphins, or any animal in New Zealand.

In a February 1 email, Anton van Helden, a DoC marine species adviser, told Andy Thompson, the Mahaanui operations manager, the harbour was an important habitat for Hector’s dolphins, and the race was being held at a time when mothers with dependent calves were likely to be present.

“Separation of mother and calf may lead to animals being vulnerable to other activities in the area, such as vessel collision.”

Dolphin harassment devices produce noise in a frequency, and at an intensity, that’s uncomfortable to an animal, and, at close range, can damage a dolphin’s hearing.

They might not stop an animal chasing prey.

Behavioural responses could include increased surfacing and splashing, and aggression towards the device itself.

But the device might also send dolphins into prolonged dives, or prompt them to become deliberately silent (a reaction to avoid predators), which “may have the unintended consequence of making the animals less available to be detected by other mitigation methods…”.

Van Helden said the testing regime, including “high level” testing in Pegasus Bay, outside the harbour, would carry “quite a lot of uncertainty”.

“In my view, one week of trials does not give sufficient time to properly assess the device, behavioural responses, and context of those responses, or provide confidence in its use in association with SailGP racing.

“The concern is that the Faunaguard device may add extraneous noise into the environment, and might not actually do anything useful, but rather simply provide the perception of usefulness.”

Increasing real-time acoustic detectors and experienced marine mammal observers would be cost-effective, he said. “This device, if it is to be used in New Zealand, requires thorough testing and consideration…”.

SailGP’s consulting firm Enviser wrote to DoC in December about the need for an extra layer of protection. “It is possible for a dolphin to remain undetected, enter the race course, and be exposed to a risk of vessel strike”.

Vessel strikes are “very likely to be fatal to the animal”.

Turning the clock forward to today, DoC says it expects to announce the result of its investigation – an investigation that has been kept from public view until now.

Yesterday, confronted with news of DoC’s investigation, and in the absence of details, Genevieve Robinson, of Māui and Hector’s Dolphin Defenders, clutches at straws.

Was it an incident involving the chaser boats? Or were dolphins observed in the race area during racing? Perhaps a dolphin scarer was used without permission?

Whatever the case, Robinson will be pushing for changes to the marine mammal sanctuary, which, she believes, is no longer fit for purpose.

Hector’s dolphins, she says, are “not protected anywhere near what they should be”.

SailGP, funded by Oracle founder Larry Ellison and run by Kiwi yachting legend Sir Russell Coutts, launches its fourth season, with an expanded 12-event calendar, in Chicago next month.

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

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