Powerboat race raises dolphin safety fears

22:36, Feb 25 2014
Dolphin
AT RISK: This year's JB Marine Offshore Powerboat Race at Paihia March 1 has dolphin experts concerned.

Dolphin experts fear for the lives of endangered dolphins in the Bay of Islands this weekend.

As powerboats race through the bay March 1, bottlenose dolphins in the area will be in peak calving time.

Director of the Coastal-Marine Research Group at Massey University Dr Karen Stockin says Paihia isn't necessarily the wrong place but it is the wrong time for the JB Marine Offshore Powerboat Race, which is for the first time an official race in NZ Offshore Powerboat's schedule.

"Researchers have observed at least six newborns using these waters over recent weeks," she says. "The risk of boat strike to dolphins is immense when dealing with high-speed vessels, as has been shown in our previous research. The risk, unfortunately, is only exacerbated when young calves are present."

Massey research shows that dolphin mortality in the Bay of Islands is already high: 42 per cent of dolphin calves in the Bay of Islands area die before reaching their first year of life, and 22 per cent die before reaching their second year of life.

Bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand are classified as Nationally Endangered and Massey research shows that the Bay of Islands has a declining population.

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Far North Holdings' Noel Brown says that next year's race and all future events will be held in April or May outside of the calving season. And in the shoulder season when the bay needs the tourism dollars.

He says that in last year's June trial for the event dolphins were spotted in the area and a race was delayed for five minutes for their safety.

There will be 15 patrol boats on the water and two helicopters in the air with "qualified dolphin observers" in it. He says there is a risk mitigation plan in place to protect dolphins.

"If we see any dolphins in what we call an exclusion zone, we'll delay the race," Mr Brown says. "If they come near the course during the race we'll stop the race. And if we can't move them from the course, we'll cancel the race."

Ms Stockin says that there is no animosity between her and Far North Holdings, but that there was "a very genuine mistake" in the planning; that those facilitating the race should have engaged an independent consultant much earlier.

She says that racing outside the calving season would be appropriate for the Bay of Islands if there are "appropriate, accredited" marine mammal observers.

Bay Chronicle