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Research into muttonbird exposure to Fukushima radiation

New funding for research into muttonbird exposure to Fukushima radiation

Scientists from the University of Auckland will undertake research to test whether New Zealand muttonbirds that spend the winter off the coast of Japan may have been exposed to radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Scientists from the University of Auckland will undertake research to test whether New Zealand muttonbirds that spend the winter off the coast of Japan may have been exposed to radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The new research is being funded by the Lottery Health Research fund with $26,028 for a pilot study to investigate whether radioactive cesium has entered the New Zealand ecosystem or food chain via the birds.

Researchers will test the birds’ feathers for gamma rays that indicate the presence of the radioactive isotope cesium-134. Feathers will be collected from prime muttonbird sites in the South Island, particularly Stewart Island.

New Zealand sooty shearwaters or titi (Puffinus griseus) migrate annually, spending the summer mating and raising their chicks in New Zealand before over-wintering off the coast of Japan.

“There is no evidence to indicate that the birds have been vectors of radioactivity so this research is very much about taking a precautionary approach,” says Dr David Krofcheck of the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics.

“But detection of gamma rays would tell us whether the birds spend sufficient time near Fukushima to accumulate cesium-134 from nuclear fission. Obviously the issue would then become whether that radioactivity is being absorbed into local ecosystems or the food chain.”

Pacific Bluefin tuna caught off the west coast of the United States show only a minute trace of cesium-134 from Fukushima, 100 times less than normal radioactive elements found in fish.

The sooty shearwater is of cultural and economic value to Maori, who sustainably harvest the nearly fledged chicks during the annual muttonbird season. The season runs from April to May and is restricted to Maori and their whanau who use the birds for food, oil and feather down.

Dr Krofcheck says consultation with Maori, the Rakiura Titi Islands Administering Body, about the research will begin as soon as possible.

“We will need to go through a number of approval processes and engage in consultation with local people before anything can happen as there are sensitive issues to consider before work can begin,” Dr Krofcheck says.

The research is being done in collaboration with the Department of Zoology, University of Otago.

Previous tests on muttonbird exposure to radiation from Fukushima found no evidence of cesium being passed from parents to chicks.

“Our study is complementary to that earlier work but tests feathers instead of the birds themselves,” Dr Krofcheck says. “Obviously what we are hoping to find in this latest research is that cesium levels in muttonbirds do not exceed exposure levels you would expect from natural sources.”


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