The GEMM Lab has been studying blue whales in New Zealand since Dr. Leigh Torres first hypothesized the existence of an undocumented foraging ground in the South Taranaki Bight in 2013. The South Taranaki Bight (STB) region, which lies between the country’s North and South Islands, sustains New Zealand’s most industrially active marine region. Oil and gas has a strong presence here, including active extraction platforms and ongoing seismic survey efforts to explore for more reserves. Busy vessel traffic frequents the STB with multiple major ports in the region and the neighboring major shipping channel of the Cook Strait. Additionally, the STB is the proposed site of a contentious seabed mine, whereby Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd. was recently granted permission to extract 50 million tons of iron sands from the seafloor each year over a 35-year period.
Three years of comprehensive vessel-based fieldwork have taken place in the STB region during January and February of 2014, 2016, and 2017. Through our collaborative and multidisciplinary research we (1) use photo-id data to calculate abundance estimates and determine individual movement and residency patterns, (2) describe the genetic composition and connectivity of this population, (3) assess stress and reproductive hormone variation, (4) describe trophic foraging patterns through stable isotope analysis, (5) conduct morphological assessment of body condition through unmanned aerial system (UAS) flights, and (6) describe association patterns between blue whales and their prey and oceanographic patterns through hydroacoustic surveys and oceanographic data collection. This has yielded a multifaceted and robust dataset that allows us to address pressing knowledge gaps regarding distribution and residency patterns, population connectivity, habitat use, and health of this little-studied blue whale population.
Given the continued growth and interest in New Zealand’s offshore resources, this work is essential and timely. With the progression of this research project into an analysis phase we will continue to build a robust understanding of blue whale ecology in the region. Subsequently, we intend to return to New Zealand for the next phase of the study, which will assess the impacts of industry presence on this blue whale population. Our findings will allow us to provide environmental decision makers in New Zealand and the region with the necessary information on blue whale ecology and biology to effectively manage potential anthropogenic threats.
Funding for this project was provided by The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (NOAA/CIMRS), Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Thorpe Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
The GEMM Lab has been studying blue whales in New Zealand since Dr. Leigh Torres first hypothesized the existence of an undocumented foraging ground in the South Taranaki Bight in 2013.