Two weeks in dense Great Barrier Island forest isn’t everyone’s thing, but for the nationally vulnerable seabird, the takoketai/black petrel, this is where they hang out to breed. This is also where Sir Peter Blake-DOC Ambassador James Ranstead is studying them.
The takoketai/black petrel story is one of destruction turned survival assistance. Originally found throughout the North Island and the top part of the South Island, black petrels were decimated through the introduction of rats, stoats, cats and pigs, and forest (habitat) clearance. Meanwhile, commercial fishing increased drastically throughout the takoketai/black petrel feeding range the Pacific Ocean, collecting many of the petrels as by-catch along the way. Numbers have dwindled significantly on the mainland, and the species is now only found on Aotea/Great Barrier Island, with a handful on Hauturu/Little Barrier Island, in the Hauraki Gulf – Auckland’s backdoor.
Takoketai/black petrel are the most at-risk seabird species from commercial fishing, and they are caught in New Zealand waters. Although takoketai/black petrels breed on land, they spend the majority of their time at sea, throughout the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds if not thousands of commercial fishing boats greet them as they cross to the eastern pacific, their place of residence outside of the breeding season. New Zealand commercial fishing boats are introducing new ways to reduce bycatch, such as tory lines which scare off birds, sinking hooks quickly out of the birds diving zone, and introducing on-board observers. It is what’s happening outside of New Zealand waters in the eastern Pacific that is thought to be the main problem – a likely lack of these techniques, right where the birds spend most of their time.
I began the journey with these thoughts in mind, climbing to the summit of Aotea/Great Barrier Island, our place of residence for the week. Crawling on hands and knees, often completely immersed beneath a log to reach into the burrows to remove a bird, chick or egg, it was an incredible situation. The purpose of disturbing the birds was to check up on their breeding status (i.e. empty burrow, single adult, egg or chick), which was carried out for each of the approximately 400 study burrows. As there are only a few thousand burrows on the island, this exercise provides a trend as to what is happening with the species as a whole. Even more incredible was the fact that these birds have flown right around the Pacific to South America, and have returned all the way back again to breed.
The fact that this species flies right across the Pacific and back again to breed is an amazing feat of nature, meaning that the takoketai/black petrel is considered a taonga, a treasure, particularly to those that live on the island. Aotea/Great Barrier is not predator-free. It has been spared a number of pests such as possums and stoats, perhaps only due to luck, but it still has rats, cats and pigs, a serious threat to the breeding success, and overall survival of this species.
The idea of a predator-free country is growing amongst New Zealanders. The growing number of pest-free islands, 44 so far in just the Hauraki Gulf, has given rise to the thought Aotea could be next. There is clear support for it; a tight-knit community with a surging spirit, a strong environmental conscience among residents, and a growing nature based tourism sector. With an open mind, anything is possible, and it’s only a matter of time until a predator-free Aotea is attempted. The only question is how – this will be the first attempt of an eradication on an island that contains a permanent human population, bringing with it a range of social issues such as the extent of toxin use, the risks posed to domestic pets, and the ethical treatment of animals.
Saving the takoketai/black petrel from extinction is a complex topic, requiring input into both the whenua and moana. Numbers are still declining, and the introduction of pigs to their small refuge atop Mt Hobson/Hirakimata would quickly remove what is left. A similar scenario occurred only a few decades ago, where pigs rapidly removed a large isolated group from the north of the island.
It is at this point where the observer has two options – to choose hope, or to choose despair. There is a lot going against the takoketai/black petrel, yet many things are improving. The island is pursuing a predator-free status, and commercial fishing techniques are improving, painting a bright future for this species. The same can be said for the predator free 2050 concept – if we don’t believe we can, then we surely can’t get there. Possum eradications on small islands were a remote concept in the 1970s, and now we can remove mice from islands far larger.
To play your part in helping save the takoketai from extinction, check out one of many NZ sustainable fish guides, limit the amount of commercial seafood purchased – particularly bluenose and snapper, and support your government in introducing new technologies and policies to mitigate by-catch.