Bird of the Year not winning in real life

Hoiho is Bird of the Year, but what are the most important things that need to happen to give the species a better chance of surviving? Research from the University of Otago's Zoology Department sheds some light. 

Around New Zealand, the triumphant screams synonymous with Otago’s most infamous battler, the yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho, are being celebrated as New Zealand’s 'Bird of the Year' was crowned yesterday. With 12,022 votes of 43,460 cast in the annual competition, the hoiho nudged out the kākāpō in the final minutes of voting, in what was to be the most nail-biting contest in Bird of the Year’s 14-year history.

The reality is, however, that hoiho are not winning in real life.

The endemic hoiho exists on New Zealand’s South Island, breeding from Banks Peninsula southwards, including Otago, Rakiura and Whenua Hou, and also on New Zealand’s sub-antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands. There’s no flow of individuals between these two populations, which means that the observed long-term decline of South Island or mainland hoiho will result in localised extinction. Research undertaken by academics at the University of Otago initially predicted this extinction to occur as early as 2048, but an unprecedented drop in the number of nests over the last three seasons suggests that functional extinction could be just a decade away.

One of the significant concerns shared by scientists is that the remote sub-antarctic populations of hoiho are assumed to be stable. However, other penguin species, including the eastern rockhopper penguin, as well as New Zealand sea lions/whakahao, have been declining on the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island due to rising sea surface temperatures and fisheries bycatch.

So, what can we do to save the hoiho? 

Seabird ecologist Lance Richdale referred to “Man’s destructive agencies” – hunting, habitat destruction and fishing, during his groundbreaking study of yellow-eyed penguins from 1936 to 1952.

University of Otago Professor Phil Seddon, whose doctoral research in the 1980s identified that more than 60 percent of hoiho chicks were taken by predators annually, suggested that without action hoiho might be extinct by 2020. While much effort over the last 40 years has been dedicated to keeping hoiho safe on land, through the creation of good habitat and through predator control, heads have been in the sand with regard to the management of their marine habitats. Pollution, and the direct and indirect effects of fishing practices including set-netting, seafloor dredging and trawling, are all taking a toll on mainland hoiho populations, whose specialised benthic foraging strategy is reliant on healthy sea floors. Baseline diet research carried out by Associate Professor Yolanda van Heezik in the 1980s indicated that hoiho have specific dietary requirements, feeding on a range of fish. The subsequent collapse of Rakiura and Whenua Hou’s hoiho populations has been linked to declining diet quality, but also more directly through entanglement in set nets. On the mainland, recent work makes it evident that hoiho diet quality has also declined – the diversity of fish available to hoiho has declined and starvation throughout the breeding and moulting periods are becoming regular events.

Like most of New Zealand’s threatened species, climate change accounts for part, but not all, of the decline in hoiho numbers by affecting the abundance of their prey. However, there has been reluctance to accept that marine habitat degradation and fisheries are having a significant impact on populations of this endemic seabird. In addition, new sources of predation and disturbance, in the form of poor dog control, and unregulated ecotourism, have had substantial impacts on hoiho populations where humans have unrestricted access to breeding grounds.

Seddon and van Heezik welcomed the spotlight on the current dire state of the mainland hoiho population and argue that now is the time for challenging unpopular opinions and making bold changes.

“The research over the last 20 years by University of Otago postgraduate students and our colleagues indicates that the decline in mainland hoiho is not attributable to climate change alone. Management of regional issues including fisheries bycatch, and benthic disturbance in areas where hoiho forage at sea, are completely within the government’s power to regulate,” Seddon says.

Furthermore, preventing disturbance by humans and dogs on land at breeding grounds should be a high priority for government agencies.

One of the key grievances between statutory agencies and scientists is the unwillingness to make changes for the bigger picture. Dunedin’s $100 million regulated wildlife ecotourism sector, which is strongly reliant on hoiho, is on the line. We believe that profits from low-quality commercial fisheries that pose significant entanglement risks should not trump the survival of a taonga species that is unique to southern New Zealand.

“The recent draft management plan, while a step in the right direction, does not go far enough. We can make bold changes now; we don’t need to delay while we gather more data about the problems – risking paralysis by analysis. We urgently need targeted management actions, guided by science, to prevent the imminent extinction of the mainland population of hoiho,” says van Heezik.

A recent management plan drafted by the Department of Conservation and Ngāi Tahu, in association with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and the Ministry of Primary Industries, has been widely criticised in public submissions for its flawed process, the exclusion of relevant scientists and hoiho experts, and the complete lack of measurable outcomes for hoiho conservation.

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