Sub-Surface Sub-Antarctics: What’s Below the Surface?

I’m in the second year of my Masters degree now – and expected to write a thesis before the year is through. I’m writing it about Marine Metre Squared – a citizen science project that’s all about getting communities involved with marine biology. I have tried to find ways to tie that in with my interest in the Sub-Antarctic Islands and so when the picture below popped up on my Twitter feed, I was inspired to do some research on what one might find in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand.

18026_10151539954354100_217873173_n“Playing host to larval fish at a depth of 24m off subantarctic Campbell island, a large Cyanae sp. looks like an exploded ball gown.” (Photo: New Zealand Geographic).

New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands play a vital role in maintaining the ecological health of the Southern Ocean. Marine mammals and penguins rely on them to stop, rest and breed. But the ocean surrounding them is just as important – it feeds the wildlife that stops to populate the islands.

409532_10150687576990132_1136009251_nThe Light-mantled Sooty Albatross relies on the Southern Ocean for sustenance (Photo: Kimberley Collins).

We often think of the ocean as foreign – not many of us interact with it daily despite it being within reach for most New Zealanders. So how do we expect to experience what’s below the surface in the remote Sub-Antarctic Islands?

NIWA researchers have found that marine biodiversity and levels of endemism around the Auckland Islands, Campbell Island, the Bounty Islands, and the Antipodes Islands are higher than it was originally assumed. In April 2005, surveys of the subtidal ledges around the Bounty and Antipodes Islands drew comparisons to the biodiversity found in tropical and North Pacific environments. They suggested that Sub-Antarctic marine biodiversity was 25% higher than that in the Hauraki Gulf and 20 – 30% lower than that in Fiordland, which is renowned as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.

While the Southern Ocean is home to everything from plankton to cetaceans to fish – the first species I think of when someone mentions the region is bull kelp. It’s one of the more stunning sights surrounding the Snares and, as I recently wrote in a blog post for Marine Metre Squared, has some novel applications in New Zealand culture.

440194344_2d8a105465_bBull kelp (Photo: Froots).

On the rocky shores you will find a number of endemic species such as the whitefoot paua (Haliotis virginea huttoni) – a subspecies of the paua commonly found in New Zealand that is endemic to Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands.
600_Haliotis-virginea-huttoni
White-footed paua (Haliotis virginea huttoni). (Photo: Mollusca NZ)
The species that we see on the surface impact those in the ocean. The Southern Blue Whiting (Micromesistius australis) is relied on heavily by seabirds. A study in 1997 revealed that the majority of food caught and fed to Campbell Island Albatross (Thalassarche impavida) chicks during the breeding season was Southern Blue Whiting.
species-southernbluewhitingThe Southern Blue Whiting (Micromesistius australis) that feeds the Campbell-Browed Albatross (Photo: United Fisheries).

And so it is no wonder that there have been calls from concerned citizens, scientists, and politicians to change the way the oceans around the islands are managed. The Sub-Antarctic Marine Reserves Bill had its final reading in parliament in late 2012, and proposes to create two more marine reserves around the Bounty Islands and Campbell Islands. They will cover 58% and 39% of those islands’ territorial ocean, effectively protecting a total of 435,163 hectares. When added to the marine reserve that already exists around the Auckland Islands, nearly a million hectares of ocean around the Sub-Antarctic Islands will be protected – which is great news for the birds, cetaceans (whales), and pinnipeds (seals) that rely on them.
What species do you know of that are found in the Sub-Antarctic marine environment?

Why the Sub-Antarctic Islands Need the Department of Conservation

Last month, it was announced that 140 full-time positions will be cut from the Department of Conservation. In the last two years, the department has had $54 million dollars slashed from its budget – as Tom Scott illustrated, it’s the same as sucking fat from a skeleton. In an attempt to show the government the value that we as New Zealanders place on conserving our environment, Forest and Bird has announced that this Thursday the 11th of April will be their first Love DOC Day.

1

It’s pretty self-explanatory – they want us to show the government and the Department of Conservation that we care and how much we appreciate all that they do to conserve our precious species.

I fell in love with birds in my first year of university. I fell in love with DOC when I first worked for them as a volunteer and saw how hard they work to save my first love of the feathered variety. Most encouraging of all was that the hard work was happening at every level of the department and wasn’t limited to those with “ranger” in their job title. I’ve seen everyone from programme directors, to researchers, to cooks, to the five-year old son of an island ranger help out in some small way – by setting a trap, monitoring a stream, or cutting out an invasive plant species.

I fell in love with the Sub-Antarctic Islands when I visited them in 2010. They are managed by the Southland Conservancy who have played a critical role in conserving them as wildlife hotspots. The species you will find there today simply could not and would not have survived without their pest control efforts or breeding programmes.

These islands are New Zealand’s diamonds in the rough – home to species found nowhere else in the world. Think of them as tiny life rafts for birds, seals, and rare plants that are anything from 3.5 to 112 square kilometres in size. Without DOC, these life rafts could sink. It’s the Department of Conservation who carry out the pest control. It’s the Department of Conservation who monitor the streams. It’s the Department of Conservation who set up breeding programmes that can and have saved species from extinction.

While the future may look bleak, I want to look at the past – at the evidence – of why the Sub-Antarctic Islands need the Department of Conservation and to show you some of the species that could actually be affected by these changes.

1. They eradicated the Norway Rat from Campbell Island and saved a species from extinction.

You will find Campbell Island 700 kilometres south of Bluff. It’s remote, it’s exposed to extreme weather conditions – and it was once covered in rats. It is also home to the Campbell Island Teal – a nocturnal, flightless duck that was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered by DOC staff in 1975. The reason for their assumed extinction – rats.

citCampbell Island Teal (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The remaining birds were quickly removed and the Department of Conservation spent twenty years trying to figure out how to remove rats from the island despite hearing cries of “crazy” and “impossible” from conservationists around the world. Nothing could deter them, and the island was declared rat-free in 2003. Not only did they break the record for the largest island eradication (previously held by the Kapiti Island project), they returned Campbell Island Teal and gave them a fighting chance at re-populating the island.

Read more about the conservation of Campbell Island Teal here & more about the eradication here.

2. They’re looking out for New Zealand’s most endangered marine mammal.

There once was a time when the New Zealand Sea Lion was found all over New Zealand’s south-east coast. Today 80% of a declining population are found in the Auckland Islands. The Department of Conservation has run an annual research programme since 1994 that provides valuable scientific information to the New Zealand government in an attempt to assist them in enforcing fishing protocols that will benefit the survival of this species.

sealionNew Zealand Sea Lions (Photo: Phombo)

They examine the survival rates, foraging behaviour, and productivity of populations and count the number of pups born at a number of breeding sites all over the Auckland Islands. They do this by “tagging all pups born on Enderby, and a sample on Dundas to facilitate monitoring of how many return each year. This data is used to estimate survival and reproductive rates for the population. Satellite transmitters and time depth recorders are used to find out where the mothers go to feed and how pups and teenagers learn how and where to feed. Biopsy samples are taken to look at nutrient levels, as this may change with changes in diet.

Read more about DOC’s NZ Sea Lion Management Plan here.

3. Because look at all these rare, endemic and endangered species!

They’re all endemic to their own islands. I can’t stress this point enough: without DOC they’d be gone. Forever – as in no bringing them back. I can almost guarantee that if they could talk, they would tell you how much they love DOC. I know I love DOC on their behalf, and I hope you will help me to show it on April the 11th!

SONY DSCThe Auckland Island Banded Dotterel is found only in the Auckland Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

IMG_8250A large proportion of the Southern Royal Albatross population nest on Campbell Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

541939_10151396116075132_1670759996_ntThe Antipodes Island Parakeet is endemic to the Antipodes Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins).

SONY DSCThe Snares Crested Penguin is found only on the Snares Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins).

sdfsdThe Bounty Island Shag is endemic to the Bounty Islands (Photo: Bird Quest Tours)

Facing up to the Future of Conservation with Forest & Bird.

This weekend I went to Wellington for the Forest and Bird Conference (called Face up to the Future) where I was on a youth panel called the Nature of Tomorrow.

I started off by making it known just how much I love the Sub-Antarctic Islands. That’s a lot, in case you happen to be the most oblivious person known to man.

Our host, Te Radar asked the audience if they knew where the Sub-Antarctic Islands and a surprisingly small number of people raised their hands (I assumed that I would be preaching to the converted). When asked if they had worked on, been to, or knew about any of the issues going on in the region, there were even fewer.

What made the weekend especially interesting was chatting to a few of the people who are currently involved with (or running) the Our Far South campaign. When he’s not hosting youth discussion panels, making award-winning documentaries, or being an all-round funny guy, Te Radar is a spokesperson for the Our Far South campaign. He’s currently working on a documentary set for release on the 3rd of July, which I cannot wait to see!

Sarah Wilcox & Te Radar on Campbell Island during the Our Far South expedition.

The Sub-Antarctic islands were just a fragment of the thought-provoking discussion we had. The diversity of the panel meant that we were able to touch on a range of subjects such as environmental politics, shark-finning, predator control, water quality, societies dependence on coal, and even the ever-so-controversial theme of intergenerational justice.

And the fun didn’t stop there. The next day we were able to sit in on the rest of the conference where everything from the (always controversial) politics of conservation to Nicola Toki’s talk about Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision for a predator-free New Zealand was covered.

All in all it was an awe-inspiring experience that has set me up for months of energy to ‘get-up-and-go-save-New-Zealand’s-wild-places-and-creatures’. The one thing I find myself questioning is complacency and its relationship to social media. I can’t help but wonder if our generation think that by sharing a post they are saving the world and have found myself questioning myself on how we can get actual involvement from youth rather than clicks.

In saying that, I highly recommend having a look at the twitter feed from the conference, it’s got great quotes, summaries, and general responses to some of the thought-provoking speakers and the conference in general. If you couldn’t make it, you can at least feel like you were there. And if you could, you can refresh your memory of some of the key issues that were raised!

There’s also this article by the lovely Isosbel Ewing that gives a nice summary of what went on at the youth panel discussion.

Look out for this article on the conference in the latest Forest and Bird members magazine.

Thanks a bunch, Forest and Bird! It was great. Just try and stop me from coming along next time!

 

Problematic Predators: An Introduction to Pests in NZ

You may have noticed that I continue to mention these things called introduced mammalian predators or pests.  I realise that I haven’t yet informed my readers of what these pests actually are, and why they are so damaging to New Zealand’s natural environment.

The Sub-Antarctic Islands have not come out unscathed by introduced predators. To date, the Department of Conservation has carried out two separate eradication programmes on both Campbell and Auckland Islands – the latter of which, was a complete success. The only remaining pest species are pigs, cats, and mice on Auckland Island, and mice on Antipodes Islands (which will hopefully change in the near future).

This long overdue blog post is about five of the ferocious and frustrating pest species that plague New Zealand in general.

Please note that this blog post includes videos that may disturb and that these five pests are not the only predators plaguing New Zealand.

1. The Rat

We often hear about ‘rats’ being a pest, but did you know that there are actually three species of rat threatening New Zealand’s wildlife?

The kiore (or Pacific rat) was introduced by early Maori settlers in the 10th century and both the ship rat (black rat) and Norway rat were introduced by early European settlers in the 17th century.

All three species negatively impact the environment by eating rare weta, frogs, snails, tuatara, lizards, insects, birds, as well as the fruits, flowers, and seeds of native plants. Of all the species, the Norway rat is the largest, followed by the ship rat and both are known to prey on birds eggs,  chicks, and even in some cases – the adults. They’re very bad news for biodiversity.

2. The Rabbit

The rabbit was brought into New Zealand in the early 1830’s as a source of food and activity in the form of hunting. What early european settlers didn’t predict was how well these rabbits would do, and how busy future generations of farmers would be keeping plagues of them from destroying their pastures.

In New Zealand, there were many attempts to control the population that included introducing stoats, poison, digging out burrows, and even establishing a commercial industry exporting rabbit skins. While some of these methods have controlled rabbit populations, they are still widespread throughout New Zealand.

In the Southern Ocean, the rabbit is best known for eating out entire fields of mega-herbs on Macquarie Island, an Australian Sub-Antarctic Island. A number of attempts to eradicate them from the island have occurred over the past 5 – 10 years with the main challenge being the quick removal of carcasses that is required to prevent secondary poisoning of carrion eating species such as skuas.

3. The Stoat

Ironically, the stoat was introduced to New Zealand with the hopes that it would control the rabbit population. Although it is a natural predator-prey relationship in the northern hemisphere, it didn’t turn out so well in New Zealand as the stoats found other New Zealand wildlife easier to catch.

Stoats are most problematic following a beech mast, which involves a large number of beech trees in a forest releasing their seeds at the same time. Following these events, mice numbers increase drastically and in the years following a beech mast, stoat numbers soar as they are able to prey on mice. Once mice numbers have declined, however, the increased stoat population will prey on native birds and animals and can have incredibly negative effects on native population numbers.

4. The Mouse

On the mainland, mice are most often observed eating berries, seeds, and insects on the forest floor. Like the stoat, they are most abundant following a beech mast on the mainland of New Zealand. Luckily for the Sub-Antarctic Islands, there are no beech trees to fuel such plagues. But that doesn’t mean they are not a threat to species in the Sub-Antarctic.

On islands, mice are recorded to act more like rats, and will take larger prey, including bird eggs, chicks, and even adults. A recent video shows a group of mice literally eating an albatross chick alive in the nest, a time when it is most vulnerable to predation.

 

Once again, I have to mention the Million Dollar Mouse project that Gareth Morgan is currently running, which aims to raise enough funds to eradicate mice from the islands. I keep pushing this project because I believe in it, and it’s a great way to raise awareness for Aotearoa’s Sub-Antarctic Islands.

5. The Cat

I think people tend to forget that their pussy-cats are the perfect predators. Cats often hunt out of instinct, and wont always eat their kill. They’re more likely to kill for a challenge, rather than to survive.

One example of the damage that cats can have is seen in the story of the Steven’s Island Wren. The most common story is that the lighthouse keepers cat, named Mr. Tibbles, was responsible for the species’ extinction. Although possible, it is more likely that the species became extinct as a result of predation by feral cats in the winter of 1895, just 14 years after humans first settled on the island in 1881.

While the best way to control cats is to treat them like every other pest, it’s only natural for humans to keep pets and we tend to believe that cats are the perfect companion. There are a few things you can do to control your pussy-cat, however, that will benefit both your conscience and the natives around you:

Keep your cats inside at night, have them wear a bell if they are outside at any time, have your cat de-sexed to prevent them breeding with feral cats, never abandon a cat, and of course the most obvious – try to keep your cat well fed and watered so that it’s never required to hunt to survive.

Incredible Endemic Species of the Southern Ocean.

If you thought that New Zealand’s mainland has some pretty special animals, wait until you meet the incredible endemics that you’ll find living on the Sub-Antarctic Islands.

What does endemic mean, I hear you wonder. It means that an animal is found nowhere else in the world. The perfect example is the kiwi on New Zealand’s mainland. The pukeko, on the other hand is a native because it’s also found across the ditch in Australia, where they call it the purple swamp hen.

So what endemic species call the Sub-Antarctic Islands home? Let’s meet three of the regions incredible endemics…

1. The Snares Penguin

The Snares Penguin (Photo: Wikimedia)

How do you fit 50,000 penguins on an area of just 3.5 square kilometres? Head down to The Snares Islands and find out. The Snares penguin are found nowhere else in the world, and have very little space to work with.

If they look familiar, it’s because they’re related to the crested penguins that we know and love like the Fiordland crested penguin and the rockhopper penguin.

While the Snares penguin is not considered as threatened, it is vulnerable to extinction because of its limited range. If a threat to its survival were to arise, it would quickly wipe out a large proportion of the population and because they are found nowhere else on the planet, recovery would be slowed down significantly.

2. The Antipodes Island Parakeet

The Antipodes Island Parakeet (Photo: ExplorNZ)

The Antipodes Island Parakeet is the largest in it’s genus and is closely related to the yellow, orange, and red-fronted parakeet (you may know them as kakariki) that are found throughout New Zealand.

As it name would suggest, it’s only found on the Antipodes Islands, a small rock in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Its main island is a mere 20 square kilometres in size, and is surrounded by a number of rocky islands and outcrops no more than 2 square kilometres in size.

The greatest threat to these birds is the introduced mouse population on the Antipodes Islands, which I mentioned in a previous blog post. They predate on the eggs and adults of these birds, and can only be stopped through eradication. Take a look at the Our Far South Million Dollar Mouse Project.

3. The Royal Penguin

Royal Penguin on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The royal penguin is found on an island that I haven’t yet covered on this blog, despite it being an interesting and important island habitat for species in the Southern Ocean. Macquarie Island is an Australian Territory found about halfway between the Australian mainland and Antarctic.

The royal penguin is endemic to the island, and a number of colonies are scattered throughout the island, the largest consisting of around 30,000 breeding pairs. Like the Snares penguin, it’s a member of the crested penguins genus (Eudyptes).

The Tasmanian government issued a hunting license for the royal penguin between 1870 and 1919 and an average of 150,000 penguins were killed each year for their oil, with each penguins providing around half a litre. Despite this dark period in their history, the royal penguin are not considered threatened and remain in large numbers on the island.

Dangerous Discoveries: Charting the Sub-Antarctics

Modern ships struggle in the rough seas of the Southern Ocean, but imagine how difficult it would be to explore the region for the first time without any maps or the luxuries of a modern ship.

The wooden ships used by early explorers were no match for the rough seas and harsh rocks surrounding the Sub-Antarctic Islands, but those that were successful in charting new islands often came away with a name-sake and a fortune from harvesting seals and whales for their skin, meat, and oil.

Let’s take a look at New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands and find out how and when they were charted and the stories behind their discovery.

The Auckland Islands

The Auckland Islands were officially discovered by a whaling vessel named Ocean in 1806, although archaeologists have uncovered evidence to suggest that were settled by Polynesian explorers around the 13th century, which makes the islands the most southerly settlement by Polynesians known.

The Auckland Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Upon their re-discovery, Captain Abraham Bristow named the main island “Lord Auckland’s” in honour of the first Baron of Auckland, William Eden. He also named Enderby Island after his employer, Samuel Enderby, who ran a successful whaling company from the United Kingdom. It wasn’t until 1807 when Captain Bristow returned to the islands that they were officially claimed for Britain.

The Antipodes Islands

Similarly, the Antipodes Islands were visited early on by Polynesian explorers. Visitors to the island in 1886 discovered a shard of what they believed to be early Polynesian pottery, which is now kept in the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa) in Wellington.

The Antipodes Islands as seen from the north (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Antipodes Islands were re-discovered in 1800 when Captain Henry Waterhouse of the ship HMS Reliance charted the region. Captain Waterhouse’s brother-in-law, George Bass heard about the regions rich wildlife and applied to have monopoly of fishing in the region. After securing permission to fish in the region, he set off immediately for the islands, presumably to begin harvesting the large population of fur seals. He was never heard from again, but his eagerness to get to the islands sparked interest in other businessmen and lead to the sealing boom from 1805 until around 1807.

The Bounty Islands

The HMS Bounty was the first ship to discover the Bounty Islands in 1788 with Captain William Bligh at its helm. While the discovery itself was uneventful, the famous mutiny that occurred on-board shortly after the islands were discovered was not.

The HMS Bounty (Photo: Wikipedia)

On the 28th of April 1789, the ship was moored off the coast of Pitcairn Island near Tahiti. It is said that many of the crew were tired of being treated harshly by their commander, Lieutenant Bligh, and wanted to take up residence on the nearby Tahitian Islands. They soon revolted and set Bligh and 18 of his most loyal crew members afloat in a small boat before settling on Pitcairn Island. Eventually, after an epic journey, Bligh made it to  Timor in the Dutch East Indies before returning to England and reporting the mutiny. Many descendants of the sailors that rebelled are still found on Pitcairn Island.

The Snares Islands

The largest of the Snares Islands were known to the Maori as Te Taniwha (which translates to “the sea monster”), but they were officially discovered by two ships working with the same expedition on the same day, but only one captain was allowed the honour of naming them.

The Snares Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Captain George Vancouver of the The HMS Discovery called the islands “The Snares” because of their ability to trap wayward ships with little experience in the area.  The second ship was the HMS Chatham, and while its commander Lieutenant William Broughton didn’t get to name the islands, one was named Broughton in his honour.

Campbell Island

Campbell Island gets its name from Robert Campbell,  the owner of a Sydney based trading company by the name of Campbell & Co. It was discovered in 1810 by the Perserverance, which was scouting the area for new sealing grounds. Its commander, Captain Frederick Hasselborough also discovered the Australian Sub-Antarctic Island, Macquarie Island.

Ironically, Captain Hasselborough drowned in Perseverance Harbour when he launched a jollyboat to check on the barrels of seal oil that he had left on the shore during his first visit.

Campbell Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)