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Hector's dolphins could compete with Sail GP for economic value

Rebekah Hunt
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Hector's dolphins are endemic to New Zealand.  Elisabeth Slooten/SUPPLIED

Sir Russell Coutts questioned the worth of protecting the Hector's dolphin - a marine mammal with a stake in our economy.


The recent Sail GP race sparked plenty of discussion around the endangerment of Hector's dolphins. Sail GP CEO, Sir Russell Coutts, kicked things off when he released a lengthy statement after a day of racing was cancelled. In it, he said Sail GP put $5.5 million into the Christchurch economy, bemoaning the $300,000+ figure that Sail GP was charged for additional safety measures. In his eyes, losing a day of racing for a dolphin caused unnecessary costs.  

But Professor emeritus of Otago University, Elisabeth Slooten, suggests Hector's dolphins have their own economic worth. She said the dolphins were only found in New Zealand, so tourists expect to see them when they travel to Christchurch. She also cited a 2018 study from the Akaroa based Black Cat Cruises.  

The cruise company had commissioned an eco-tourism economic study and found that Hector's dolphin tourism generates $19.5 million in the Canterbury region annually. Seven eco-tourism operators rely on the presence of the Hector’s dolphins to attract tourists, and the report estimates eco-tourists spend an extra $22.2 million on non-dolphin related activities. 

Eco-tourism is recognised nationally as an integral part in New Zealand's appeal. The Official New Zealand Travel webpage claims that swimming with dolphins is the best wildlife experience in New Zealand. There is a large emphasis on hiking, swimming and getting out into nature. This messaging is common and causes Elisabeth to question why Sail GP was held in a recognised marine reserve. 

The Department of Conservation (DOC) released its own statement saying Sail GP was made aware of the legal requirements for operating vessels in Lyttelton Harbour. Sail GP was informed that Hector's dolphins are a protected species that is currently calving, so the sailing organisation worked to create a detailed marine mammal safety plan.  

Elisabeth is glad that the plan was followed through but says there were other options. 

“People are saying stuff like, this is costing New Zealand millions of dollars. It doesn't have to cost New Zealand millions of dollars. They could easily find a good spot that doesn't have a dolphin that's only found in New Zealand.” 

She thinks Sir Coutts suggestion of the Queenstown Lake is a great idea, as there is no chance of finding endangered whales or dolphins in the water. Sir Coutts is unsure whether he wants to return at all, so Sail GP may look different in the following years.