Sir Russell Coutts slams ‘extreme’ dolphin policy after SailGP races canned

Sir Russell Coutts has slammed officials for their “extreme” dolphin policy that halted racing on the first day of the SailGP event.

However, the organisers understood the risks involved, the city council’s agency and iwi say, and were even warned it was a bad gamble, a dolphin expert says.

The event, in Lyttelton Harbour, was set to get under way at 3pm on Saturday but was delayed after a dolphin was spotted in the racing zone.

After it had not moved on after two hours, the day’s racing was abandoned entirely.

Under SailGP’s marine mammal management plan, racing must stop if a dolphin is sighted and not continue until 20 minutes after it is last seen.

The plan was developed alongside the Department of Conservation, Environment Canterbury and Ngāti Wheke to protect Hector’s dolphins, which are known to breed around Lyttelton at this time of year.

Hector’s dolphins are native to New Zealand and are classed as nationally vulnerable, with about 15,000 in existence.

Coutts, the chief executive of SailGP, said other harbour users were not subject to such “restrictive” protocols.

Nor did other countries require SailGP to agree to such measures before allowing racing there.

Saturday’s incident was “another example of New Zealand being handcuffed by unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and red tape”.

“I find it astonishing the amount of influence iwi have over the authorities here in New Zealand,” he wrote, saying that DoC would not allow SailGP racing in Lyttlelton without approval from the iwi.

He said there were marine mammals in the water in all of the locations where SailGP raced worldwide.

“We’ve never had an incident in 35 years.”

Read Sir Russell’s full statement:

He said there needed to be a balance in the decision-making.

“For example, one could say that because there is a chance of a road death that we shouldn’t be allowed to drive on the roads. I suspect most people would conclude that such a stance would be far too extreme and not practical.

“Inherently, as a society we accept an element of risk in our daily lives.”

International teams spent considerable amounts of money on sending their teams to New Zealand to compete, Coutts said.

Hector’s dolphins.

The fans – it was estimated about 11,000 were in Lyttelton on Saturday – were also left disappointed.

“There are a lot of considerations in managing an event like this, yet almost none of those are not being properly considered by the environmental and harbour authorities here in Christchurch.”

Management plan and decision was SailGP’s own, locals say

Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke and the host city agency ChristchurchNZ responded in a joint statement.

The marine mammal management plan (MMMP) was created to protect the dolphins from the possibility of being struck by the blade of an F50 foiling at speeds of up to 100kmh, and not being able to race had always a possibility, they said.

The MMMP was owned by SailGP itself, and had earlier been praised by the event’s own managing director, who had called it: “an industry-leading example of SailGP’s commitment to the environments in which we operate”, they pointed out.

The iwi in particular questioned why Coutts had singled them out.

“The involvement of Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke was to review and provide input into the Marine Mammal Management Plan (MMMP). We do not have a role in implementing the MMMP,” Mishele Radford, Chair of Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke said.

“SailGP knew what they signed up for when they decided to hold the event within a marine mammal sanctuary.

“Our iwi and hapū are part of Ōtautahi community and we want to see our beautiful city succeed. Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke would have loved to see racing happen too, while ensuring the protection of precious nationally vulnerable Upokohue/Hector’s dolphins.”

ChristchurchNZ attraction and destination manager Loren Aberhart thanked all the partners who had worked together in a tight timeframe so the event could go ahead.

“The city is proud to have pulled together a global major event with 12 weeks’ notice within the parameters of a natural environment and scheduled around commercial maritime operations and health and safety measures.

“We all want SailGP to succeed in our city and to be able to race while also protecting our native species. We are totally pumped to see racing today on a beautiful afternoon in Lyttelton and of course to see the Black Foils take out the win.”

Last year’s event was thought to have generated a visitor spend of more than $4 million for Christchurch, with almost 23,000 visitor nights the statement said, quoting data from Fresh Info.

Organisers warned ahead hosting event was risky prospect – professor

University of Otago zoology professor emeritus Liz Slooten earlier said it was normal for Hector’s dolphins to be around the harbour at this time of year and having a race delayed was “totally predictable”.

Two of her colleagues from the University of Otago were on an expert panel discussing the issue ahead of last year’s race.

“They already said, ‘look, if you absolutely must do it in Lyttelton Harbour then you should do it in the middle of winter’.”

Slooten said she was pleased to hear Coutts wanted to move the event to Wellington or Queenstown next year.

It was a poor decision from Christchurch officials to host the races, she said.

“This just seems to be a really bad bet, especially because these dolphins are actually very important economically to the Canterbury region.

“There’s a lot of dolphin tourism on Akaroa Harbour. Really you don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

The second day of racing got under way on Sunday afternoon.

Spectators in the grandstand cheering the New Zealand SailGP Team as they wait on the water whilst the racing is on hold due to a dolphin sighting on the course on Race Day 1 of the ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix in Christchurch, New Zealand. Saturday 23rd March 2024. Photo: Brett Phibbs for SailGP. Handout image supplied by SailGP

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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