• Nick Smith

Conservation Minister, Nick Smith today released scientific research from a joint Department of Conservation and Auckland University project, indicating that the remnants of the once numerous New Zealand southern right whale population, could be living in the sheltered waters of the remote Auckland Islands.

"This is tremendously exciting news for conservationists and, if confirmed with further studies, would match in significance the 1947 discovery of the Takahe in Fiordland. We know these whales once migrated up and down the New Zealand coastline as far north as Kapiti Island, but it has long been thought that the whaling industry slaughtered them to extinction last century."

The key to the research is DNA testing. The few southern right whales appearing along the New Zealand coast were assumed to be stray individuals from the Australian population. However DNA analysis has shown that the Auckland Islands population is a distinct group, different from the Australian right whales. While it is too early to conclude where the Auckland Island population came from, scientists say it is "highly likely" they are the remnant of the former New Zealand population.

"The next stage in the work is to extract reliable DNA from products, such as baleen and whale bone in our museums, known to have come from New Zealand southern right whales, to see if an accurate match can be made with data collected from the Auckland Island population. The scientists will return to the islands over winter for further study."

"This important work underlies the ecological significance of the Auckland Islands, as a nature wonderland and reinforces the coalition government's initiative in promoting it for World Heritage Status. The study also highlights just how vulnerable these remaining unique creatures are. 1998 is International Year of the Oceans, and it is particularly important that we focus on putting an end to commercial whaling."

New Zealand scientists will present the results of this research to a global workshop on status and trends of right whales at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Cape Town, South Africa in March this year.