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Boats can't be blamed for dolphin deaths: Sailing commentator

Publish Date
Mon, 25 Mar 2024, 10:48AM

Boats can't be blamed for dolphin deaths: Sailing commentator

Publish Date
Mon, 25 Mar 2024, 10:48AM

Legendary sailing commentator Peter Montgomery has questioned whether dolphins were ever put in danger after SailGP racing off Lyttelton Harbour was cancelled on Saturday. 

Dolphin sightings on the racecourse brought proceedings to a halt just as the teams were preparing to get in position for the weekend’s first race. The 10 crews sat idly by on their F50s for about 90 minutes before the day’s schedule was called off. 

Event organiser and SailGP boss Sir Russell Coutts said on Saturday SailGP will have to have a “pretty in-depth discussion” about the viability of another event in New Zealand. 

Racing did eventually take place on Sunday with the Black Foils hoisting the trophy at their home event. 

Montgomery was in attendance at the event and questioned if dolphins were in any danger. 

“People were very frustrated and a bit bewildered by it... people just didn’t quite understand,” Montgomery told the Mike Hosking Breakfast on Newstalk ZB. 

“You’ve got this dolphin check and you’ve got these professors from Otago University. No one’s asking them ‘name one time a dolphin has been hit by a marine vessel?’. 

“Of course they’re endangered because forever orcas have been taken to them. And no one’s talking about the number of dolphins that have been caught in nets here in Lyttelton Harbour, which has nothing to do with a sailboat race. 

“So there was a whole bunch of frustration.” 

Montgomery said it was a shame after so much had been invested into the city. 

“Millions and millions of dollars has been spent by Sail GP on the Lyttelton sports grounds. And it’s all fresh new money to Canterbury, and they need it and let alone New Zealand needs it. 

“They got 11,000. They could have had 15,000 or 16,000 and sold them out. The whole atmosphere, even on Saturday, was great but very frustrated. And yesterday it was overtaken with a fantastic competition. And certainly there was some high drama on the water.” 

It was the second time in as many SailGP events in the harbour that dolphin sightings caused a delay to competition. In 2023, the first day’s racing was delayed for the same reason, but was ultimately able to get under way and the event was completed without further issues. 

In line with SailGP protocol, racing is delayed to allow marine life to pass through safely but unfortunately on Saturday, the dolphin did not move outside the racecourse area and racing could not take place. Coutts says the league has never had an incident involving an aquatic animal in 35 events around the world. 

Speaking to Newstalk ZB’s Jason Pine, Coutts said the message from the teams after Saturday’s events was that “this isn’t working”. 

“The sailors and the team principals, I’ve had a lot of feedback from them overnight. I think you can guess what the response has been. This probably won’t only affect Christchurch, but it might also affect future events in New Zealand,” Coutts said. 

“Obviously, the international teams are a huge part of this and we’ll have to have a pretty in-depth discussion about the viability going forward. 

“The crowd and the scene yesterday was amazing. It really is incredible. An incredible venue, an incredible city, and I’m just disappointed for the people here.” 

SailGP was not supposed to return to Christchurch again until 2025, however, the unavailability of land at Auckland’s Wynyard Point for use as a spectator zone saw that event axed late last year and, because of the short notice, returning south was the only viable option. Should the league return, Wellington, Auckland and Queenstown are among potential candidates to host a future event. 

The Lyttelton Harbour is part of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary, which contains a number of internationally vulnerable marine species, such as the Hector’s dolphin. The Department of Conservation lists the Hector’s dolphin as a nationally vulnerable species. The World Wildlife Fund lists it as an endangered species. 

Spain's SailGP Team wait for racing clearance after a dolphin was spotted on the racecourse in Lyttelton. Photo / Ricardo Pinto, SailGP

Spain's SailGP Team wait for racing clearance after a dolphin was spotted on the racecourse in Lyttelton. Photo / Ricardo Pinto, SailGP 

In a statement, Coutts said the league had to observe several additional rules and restrictions imposed by local authorities and aired his frustration at the situation. 

“In addition to our normal marine mammal protocols, SailGP has had this extreme marine mammal management plan forced upon us in Lyttelton, demanded by the Department of Conservation [DoC], Ecan [Environment Canterbury] and Ngāti Wheke for this event. Otherwise, SailGP would not be permitted to race. Other harbour users, including commercial users, are not subject to such protocols,” Coutts said. 

He said “unrequired services” enforced by DoC, Ecan and the Lyttelton Port Company had added approximately $300,000 to the cost of holding the event, with the expenses of about $78,000 for the services of 11 dolphin observers on top of that. 

He also criticised the harbourmaster for being “extremely restrictive” in prohibiting practice for the international teams, which is desperately needed. 

In SailGP, teams do not manage their own boats outside of race week. The boats go from location to location, and the teams are lucky to get a couple of days of practice before launching into racing, which makes development on the foiling catamarans tricky. 

Addressing the event being unable to go ahead on Saturday, DoC deputy director of general operations Henry Weston noted that in New Zealand, the Marine Mammals Protection Act and Marine Mammals Protection Regulations direct how vessels must behave around marine mammals and says it is illegal to harass or disturb them. 

“All vessels and people involved in the SailGP event, including any support boats or spectators, must abide by this legislation. It is a legal requirement. People controlling vessels who encounter a dolphin or other marine mammal must travel no faster than idle/no wake speed if within 300 metres of a dolphin, and do not herd, harass or obstruct marine mammals or cut through groups,” Weston said. 

“SailGP has chosen to hold its event in a marine mammal sanctuary that was established for the protection of Hector’s dolphins. This decision to hold the event there was made in the full knowledge that protection of the dolphins from the impact of boats will be paramount. 

“In the lead-up, DoC provided feedback and advice on the race organisers’ marine mammal management plan, working closely with Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke, Rāpaki. Our feedback focused on technical advice ensuring the plan reflected the Marine Mammals Protection Act and Regulations and advocating for the safety of marine mammals.” 

Weston said the marine mammal management plan was developed by and belonged to the race organisers and DoC did not have a role in implementing it, but did have staff at the event prepared to respond if an incident involving a marine mammal was to occur. 

“At this time of year, mothers and calves are present in the harbour and calves have been seen on the course this weekend. Newborn calves and young animals are vulnerable to boat strike as they are less aware of risk, spend more time on the surface and dive more slowly than mature dolphins,” Weston added. 

“We recognise the importance of events to the region and acknowledge yesterday’s cancellation would have been disappointing for spectators and racers.” 

Otago University zoology professor emeritus Liz Slooten told RNZ it was normal for Hector’s dolphins to be around the harbour at this time of year and having a race delayed was “totally predictable”. 

Two of her colleagues from Otago University were on an expert panel discussing the issue ahead of last year’s race. 

“They already said, ‘look, if you absolutely must do it in Lyttelton Harbour then you should do it in the middle of winter’.” 

Slooten said she was pleased to hear Coutts wanted to move the event to Wellington or Queenstown next year. 

It was a poor decision from Christchurch officials to host the races, she said. 

“This just seems to be a really bad bet, especially because these dolphins are actually very important economically to the Canterbury region. 

“There’s a lot of dolphin tourism on Akaroa Harbour. Really you don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” 

Sir Russell Coutts’ full statement on SailGP Christchurch 

SailGP operates all over the world, and no doubt there are marine mammals in the water in all of the locations we race. We’ve never had an incident in 35 events. 

Our people and our athletes care deeply about marine conservation. In addition to our normal marine mammal protocols, SailGP has had this extreme marine mammal management plan forced upon us in Lyttelton, demanded by the Department of Conservation, Ecan and Ngāti Wheke for this event. Otherwise, SailGP would not be permitted to race. Other harbour users, including commercial users, are not subject to such protocols. 

Sir Russell Coutts speaks with Newstalk ZB's Jason Pine. Photo / Nick Bewley

Sir Russell Coutts speaks with Newstalk ZB's Jason Pine. Photo / Nick Bewley 

In particular, Guy Harris, the harbourmaster, has been extremely restrictive in prohibiting practice for our international teams, including this morning where they were desperately seeking his approval to allow them much-needed time on the water. He refused without giving any reasons. Earlier in the week, he also stated to me that because SailGP is a commercial entity, other non-commercial entities and views have priority. 

Unfortunately, yesterday was another example of there being almost no balance in the decision-making - another example of New Zealand being handcuffed by unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and red tape. 

I find it astonishing the amount of influence iwi have over the authorities here in New Zealand. The Department of Conservation would not allow racing in Lyttelton unless SailGP had approval from the iwi. I suspect most New Zealanders don’t realise the full implications of such a stance. 

It’s been my experience throughout my long career connected with the ocean that dolphins are extremely intelligent mammals and are inherently aware of boats around them. The Hector’s dolphin is not an endangered species as Otago University professor Liz Slooten recently claimed. That was a lie. 

Of course, with any decision like this, there needs to be a balance. For example, one could say that because there is a chance of a road death that we shouldn’t be allowed to drive on the roads. I suspect most people would conclude that such a stance would be far too extreme and not practical. Inherently, as a society we accept an element of risk in our daily lives. 

The Department of Conservation, Ecan and Lyttelton Port Company have enforced services upon SailGP - (which is an international company with its main offices in London and New York) - that are not required and not demanded anywhere else in the world, yet are nevertheless imposed as a condition for allowing the races to proceed in Lyttelton. The costs from those unrequired services total approximately $300k. In addition to that, there are 11 so-called expert dolphin observers that are being paid... $600 per day each, plus their expenses in a programme that totals $78,000. 

It was demanded that those dolphin observers be on site from Thursday onwards, despite the harbourmaster reducing practice on that day to around 11 minutes of sailing. These are costs and services that SailGP doesn’t face anywhere else in the world. In conducting this event, SailGP alone is spending approximately... $5.5million on the local economy. 

Of course our international teams also go to considerable effort and expense to send their teams to New Zealand to compete and it’s fair to say that they are also not happy with the way this programme is being managed. 

SailGP distributes live broadcast to 212 territories worldwide and many of those broadcasters including CBS in the US turned the feed off well before the conclusion of the live broadcast window. 

There are a lot of considerations in managing an event like this yet almost none of those are not being properly considered by the environmental and harbour authorities here in Christchurch. 

The fact is almost all of the people here in Christchurch are incredibly supportive and positive. I’d like to thank all of those people who have made us feel so welcome. I feel sorry for the fans, local businesses and all those people that are so proud of this incredible city that the event has been so disrupted. Let’s hope we finish with some great racing today. 

Christopher Reive joined the Herald sports team in 2017, bringing the same versatility to his coverage as he does to his sports viewing habits. 

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