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DOC Rebuts Forest & Bird Comments On Dolphin Trial


24 February 2004


The Department of Conservation makes the following comments in response to the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society's press release, of 23 February, headlined: "Minister urged to cancel decision to put dolphins at risk".

* The Department of Conservation's decision to proceed with the satellite tracking trial on Hector's dolphins is not against its own science advice. There has been debate within the department among marine scientists on the use of satellite technology, which is not an unusual occurrence. However, the DOC Science and Research position supports a trial to test the effectiveness of current tagging technology on a related dolphin to Maui's in New Zealand conditions before it can be considered for Maui's dolphins themselves.

* DOC is not bolting the satellite tags onto the dolphins. It is using 4mm-wide medical nylon pins, which will pass through the dolphin's fin and be held in place with metal fasteners. The magnesium fasteners will corrode and release to coincide with the battery life of the transmitters. This process is an advance on earlier technology.

* Modern tags weigh about 50 grams, the weight of three 50-cent pieces and less than one-tenth the weight of the pound-of-butter-sized tags which damaged dolphin fins overseas. The images circulated by Forest and Bird relate to a study using obsolete technology and are grossly misleading.

* The current ultra-light satellite tags are a routine technology used overseas on many species of dolphin, whale, shark, seal, tuna and albatross.

* It is accepted that there are risks to using satellite tags. That is why the department is trialling it on three Hector's dolphins, before considering its use on the critically endangered Maui's dolphin.

* DOC applied to the Massey University ethics committee for a proposed trial that required the dolphins to be captured twice - the first time to attach the tags and the second time to remove them and an attached dive recorder. The ethics committee approved this proposal. The current trial does not use a dive recorder so the dolphins don't need to be recaptured, which lessens the risks to the dolphins. The ethics committee approval covers the current trial.

* DOC intends to observe the tagged dolphins after the transmitters stop transmitting. The trial is on members of a well-studied Banks Peninsula population and the chances are better there than elsewhere of sighting dolphins.

* DOC flew a Danish researcher to New Zealand, the world expert on using this technology but this had no bearing on the decision to approve the trial.

* Aerial surveys cannot determine where dolphins are at night or in rough conditions. They cannot track an individual dolphin. Trying to study the world's 150 remaining Maui's dolphins by air is like looking for needles in a haystack. This is why DOC is trialling satellite tracking technology - it may provide the information we need to protect these dolphins.

Update on trial preparation:

DOC Akaroa staff today completed an accuracy test on land for the satellite transmitters. They were found to be able to pinpoint a position to within 100 metres, and in certain conditions to within 10 metres. This is far more accurate than the three-kilometre accuracy alleged by Forest and Bird.

The high level accuracy is thought to be due to very low radio interference in the southern hemisphere, compared to the northern hemisphere. The department is excited with this result, which indicates the transmitters will perform better than expected.


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