Massive blue whale population found in NZ proposed seabed mining area

A baby blue whale filmed nursing off the Taranaki coast observed by Leigh Torres and her crew last year was likely a world-first.

A baby blue whale filmed nursing off the Taranaki coast observed by Leigh Torres and her crew last year was likely a world-first.

Jeremy Wilkinson | Stuff NZ | February 22 2017

Blue whales – the world’s largest animal – have been found in abundant numbers in a proposed seabed mining area in Taranaki. 

Marine mammal expert Leigh Torres made a presentation to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in Wellington on Wednesday on the results of a recent survey in the South Taranaki Bight, which found a blue whale population of at least 68. 

The EPA is meeting to hear arguments for and against an application from miner Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) to mine millions of tonnes of iron sands off the coast of Patea. TTRs first application was rejected in 2014.

Torres, a professor from Oregon State University professor who has carried out research in Taranaki waters in collaboration with the Department of Conservation, said seabed mining will have a severe impact on the whale population in the area.  

“The likely impacts of seabed mining are increased noise in the area, which could seriously affect the whales and their primary prey which is krill,” she said. 

“The mining will be noisy and whales’ hearing is crucial to them, they rely more on it than they do eyesight.

“But it’s the sediment created from uplifting the sand that could affect the krill which would in turn affect the whales feeding.”

Torres and her team observed 68 individual whales over 32 sightings during nine days this year, more than twice the number of whales they observed last year when they captured world-first footage of a calf feeding from its mother. 

Torres said that whales are generally seen by the scientific community as being migratory animals, but her study so far indicates that the population they’ve been following have made South Taranaki their home.

“All we really know for certain at this stage is that the South Taranaki Bight is very important to this population,” she said. 

“We’ve observed them surface-feeding but we also hear them through hydrophones calling to each other almost daily. So we know they’re there a lot of the time.”

Torres said the team had identified mating calls from males which indicated the whales were staying around to breed.

Although TTR has offered certain mitigation strategies to protect the whales, such as deploying its own hydrophones to monitor the population, Torres said it wasn’t enough.

“The evidence I’ve presented at the hearing supports the argument of the opposition to the mining,” she said. 

“But my own personal opinion is that the mining is not worth the risk to the whales.”

Oil and gas activities have operated with the Taranaki region for decades as New Zealand’s only oil-producing basin, but Torres feared the effects of adding mining to the mix could do cumulative damage. 

This is Trans Tasman Resource’s second application to the EPA to mine more than 50 million tonnes of iron-laden sand per year from a 66 square kilometre area off the coast of Patea. 

The company’s application was rejected in 2014 amid concerns of a lack of knowledge as to the environmental effects of their proposal. 

When they applied last year the EPA saw a record number of submissions flood in against the proposal – more than 17,000 – in an effort spearheaded by New Zealand anti-mining group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining. 

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2 Comments

Filed under Environmental impact, New Zealand

2 responses to “Massive blue whale population found in NZ proposed seabed mining area

  1. LET US BE REMINDED.
    News 10 February 2017

    More than 400 whales stranded on New Zealand beach, majority reported dead

    In October 2016, New Zealand’s Oil and Gas Industry website states that:
    “Early stage exploration activities in the New Zealand energy industry continue – perhaps pointing to an upturn in the nationwide sector during 2017-18.

    Top of the list are two seismic surveys due to start soon and take six months or so to complete in the geological Taranaki Basin and some other regions.” Seismic surveys are used to find gas oil and minerals. These seismic surveys are damaging to the marine environment which also includes, whales, dolphins, fish etc.

    Time for the academics of NZ to realise that it is NOT natural for 400 whales to beach themselves and face the facts. It wasn’t a shark either.

    According to Dr David Suzuki,
    “Before any offshore oil drilling takes place, oil companies perform exploratory tests, or seismic survey, in order to make sure that hydrocarbons are present in the area.
    To conduct a seismic survey, compressed air streams or focused sonic waves are sent towards the ocean floor in order to gauge the depth, location and structure of the valuable geological resources that lie underneath.
    Since sound travels more easily under water than through the air, the noise from a single seismic survey can travel tens of thousands of square kilometres.
    Indeed, more and more scientists confirm that such surveys disturb the communication, navigation and eating habits essential to the survival of marine wildlife. These sonic waves can also damage fish with air bladders, destroy marine wildlife eggs and larvae, and incite fish and other marine species to temporarily migrate away from the affected area.
    This kind of oil and gas prospecting inevitably causes environmental damage to a marine environment.”
    http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/oceans/science/marine-planning-and-conservation/what-are-seismic-surveys-and-their-impacts/

  2. Helen

    We will not stop mining under the sea and on land and soon the planets and asteroids too until it is too late for humans to understand what they are doing. In the sort term: whales need to hear their food and so do snakes. The noise of mining will surely kill of most of both.

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