What it looks like when science meets management decisions

Dr. Leigh Torres
GEMM Lab, OSU, Marine Mammal Institute

It’s often difficult to directly see the application of our research to environmental management decisions. This was not the case for me as I stepped off our research vessel Tuesday morning in Wellington and almost directly (after pausing for a flat white) walked into an environmental court hearing regarding a permit application for iron sands mining in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand (Fig. 1). The previous Thursday, while we surveyed the STB for blue whales, I received a summons from the NZ Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to appear as an expert witness regarding blue whales in NZ and the potential impacts of the proposed mining activity by Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd. (TTR) on the whales. As I sat down in front of the four members of the EPA Decision Making Committee, with lawyers for and against the mining activity sitting behind me, I was not as prepared as I would have liked – no business clothes, no powerpoint presentation, no practiced summary of evidence. But, I did have new information, fresh perspective, and the best available knowledge of blue whales in NZ. I was there to fill knowledge gaps, and I could do that.

Figure 1. Distribution map of blue whale sightings (through Nov 2016) in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, color-coded by month. Also identified are the current locations of oil and gas platforms (black flags) and the proposed area for seabed mining (yellow polygon). The green stars denote the location of our hydrophones within the STB that record blue whale vocalizations. The source of the upwelling plume at Kahurangi Point, on the NW tip of the South Island, is also identified.

For over an hour I was questioned on many topics. Here are a few snippets:

Why should the noise impacts from the proposed iron sands mining operation on blue whales be considered when seismic survey activity produces noise 1,000 to 100,000 times louder?

My answer: Seismic survey noise is very loud, but it’s important to note that seismic and mining noises are two different types of sound sources. Seismic surveys noise is an impulsive noise (a loud bang every ~8 seconds), while the mining operation will produce non-impulsive (continuous) sound. Also, the mining operation will likely be continuous for 32 years. Therefore, these two sound sources are hard to compare. It’s like comparing the impacts of listening to pile driving for a month, and listening to a vacuum cleaner for 32 years. What’s important here is to considering the cumulative effects of both these noise sources occurring at the same time: pile driving on top of vacuum cleaner.


How many blue whales have been sighted within 50 km of the proposed mining site?

My answer: Survey effort in the STB has been very skewed because most marine mammal sighting records have come from marine mammal observers aboard seismic survey vessels that primarily work in the western regions of the STB, while the proposed mining site is in the eastern region. So at first glance at a distribution map of blue whale sightings (Fig. 1) we may think that most of the blue whales are found in the western region of the STB, but this is incorrect because we have not accounted for survey effort.

During our past three surveys in the STB we have surveyed closer to the proposed mining site. In 2014 our closest point of survey approach to the mining site was 26 km, and our closest sighting was 63 km away. In 2016, we found no whales north of 40’ 30” in the STB and the closest sighting was 107 km away from the proposed mining site, but this was a different oceanographic year due to El Niño conditions. During this recent survey in 2017, our closest point of survey approach to the proposed mining site was 22 km, and our closest sighting was 29 km, with a total of 9 sightings of 16 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. With all reported sighting records of blue whales tabulated, there have been 16 sightings of 33 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. Considering the minimal survey effort in this region, this is actually a relatively high number of blue whale sighting records near the proposed mining site.

Additionally, we have a hydrophone located 18.8 km from the proposed mining site. We have only analyzed the data from January through June 2016 so far, but during this period we have an 89% daily detection rate of blue whale calls.


Why are blue whales in the STB and where else are they found in NZ?

My answer: A  wind-driven upwelling system occurs off Kahurangi Point (Fig. 1) along the NW coast of the South Island. This upwelling brings nutrient rich deep water to the surface where it meets the sunlight causing primary productivity to begin. Currents push these productive plumes of water into the STB and zooplankton, such as krill that is the main prey item of blue whales, aggregate in these productive areas to feed on the phytoplankton. Blue whales spend time in the STB because they depend on the predictability of these large krill aggregations in the STB to feed efficiently.

Sightings of blue whales have been reported in other areas around New Zealand, but nowhere with regular frequency or abundance. There may be other areas where blue whales feed occasionally or regularly in New Zealand waters, but these areas have not been documented yet. We don’t know very much about these newly documented New Zealand blue whales, yet what we do know is that the STB is an important foraging area for these animals.


Questions like these went on and on, and I was probed with many insightful questions. Yet, the question that sticks with me now was asked by the Chair of the Decision Making Committee regarding the last sentence in my submitted evidence where I remarked on the importance of recognizing the innate right of animals to live in their habitat without disturbance. “This sounds like an absolute statement,” claimed the Chair, “like no level of disturbance is tolerable”. I was surprised by the Chair’s focus on this statement over others. I reiterated my opinion that we, as a society, need to recognize the right of all animals to live in undisturbed habitats whenever we consider any new human activity. “That’s why we are all here today”, I explained to the committee, “to recognize and evaluate the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining operation on blue whales, and other animals, in the STB”. Undisturbed habitat may not always be achievable, but when we make value-based decisions regarding permitting industrial projects we need to recognize biodiversity’s right to live in uncompromised environments.

I do not envy this Decision Making Committee, as over three weeks they are hearing evidence from all sides on a multitude of topics from environmental, to economic, to cultural impacts of the proposed mining operation. They will be left with the very hard task of balancing all this information and deciding to approve or decline the mining permit, which would be a first in NZ and may open the floodgates of seabed mining in the country. My only hope is that our research on blue whales in NZ over the last five years has filled knowledge gaps, allowing the Decision Making Committee to fully appreciate the importance of the STB habitat to NZ blue whales, and appropriately consider the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining activities on this unique population.

A blue whale surfaces in a calm sea in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand (Photo L. Torres).
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