Precious Westland petrels need our understanding and protection

Westland petrel. Photo: Rod MorrisA new report concludes that many threats remain for Westland petrels, which only nest in a few colonies near Punakaiki. (Photo: Rod Morris)

Trust Chair, Kerry-Jayne Wilson, has completed and published her review of the biology and ecology, and an evaluation of the threats to, the Westland petrel with the support of the Brian Mason Trust.

Having reviewed all the published and much unpublished material, the report concludes the main threats are fisheries bycatch, both in New Zealand, where the Westland petrel is the 10th at risk seabird from bycatch in NZ waters, and in South America, where the risk is virtually unknown due to a lack of reliable information.

As breeding birds, Westland petrels are unique to the West coast but they feed in seas around central NZ and, between breeding seasons, they migrate to and spend summers around Argentina and Chile.

Important land based threats are the lights of Punakaiki, as well as Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika, which disorientate young birds.  The most serious introduced threats are dogs and feral pigs, should they get into the area.  Other land based threats include the natural hazards of landslips and other storm damage.

Climate change and rising sea temperatures present an expected, but as yet unquantified threat to the Westland petrels and indeed all seabirds.

Modelling of the amount of plastic waste in our oceans suggests that, in the next few decades, 95% of all seabird species will be impacted by plastics, and although plastic has not yet been found in Westland petrels there is a very real threat that plastics could be ingested causing starvation or poisoning, or birds could become entangled in plastic debris.

The purpose of the report was to draw on the research of others in order to present recommendations both for future research and for conservation management.  More research is needed particularly with regard to fishery operations off the coast of South America and, at home, it is important to understand and manage threats from our own fishery operations.  On land, it is essential to be prepared to deal swiftly with the threats posed by a loose dog or released pig.

Advocacy and awareness particularly with local communities will go a long way to protecting the colonies as they learn about and value their special birds.  The ‘Return of the Westland Petrel’ festival team and Barrytown School are already doing a great job in this regard.

The Westland petrel is the last of at least 16 species of petrels that once bred on mainland New Zealand, including at least six near Punakaiki.  The Westland petrel continues to survive as they are the largest and most aggressive of them at up to 1.4kg.  Field workers report that they are also the fiercest!

It is hoped that a new three year project will start in 2017, which will call on volunteers from the West Coast community.  Volunteers will be asked to help rescue and record Westland petrels that have become confused by lights and land in places where they are unable to become airborne again or are at risk from vehicles.  If you are interested in being a part of this project next year, please get in touch.

The full report is available here: Westland petrel threats report, June 2016 (Kerry-Jayne Wilson) and any queries can be directed to the Trust:

Westland petrel (photo: Kerry-Jayne Wilson)

Westland petrel (photo: Kerry-Jayne Wilson)