Evidence is mounting that New Zealand’s southern right whale population is on the verge of extinction.
The Department of Conservation has been taking genetic samples from any southern right whale it could find over the past four years.
Marine specialist Andrew Baxter said 30 samples had been taken from just 15 individual whales and so far none of he samples matched with larger populations elsewhere.
He said the evidence was growing that the whales around New Zealand were a separate population and that meant there was only an estimated 10 healthy breeding females left.
“At the beginning there was a lot of uncertainty but the evidence is growing with the more samples we take.
“It is just shoring up the argument that we are looking at a separate population,” Baxter said.
The prospect of no southern right whales around mainland New Zealand was a far cry from the observations of early Wellington settlers who complained that whales kept them awake at night with their blowing.
There was an estimated 16,000 southern right whales in New Zealand but they had all but disappeared by 1860 because of whaling.
They were on the verge of extinction when whaling was outlawed in 1936.
Little appears to have changed since whaling was stopped around mainland New Zealand although the species was making a comeback in the sub-Antartic Auckland Islands.
Baxter said it was thought that the whales seen around New Zealand were from the Auckland Islands and the mounting evidence was that this was not the case was extremely worrying.
“It means that every, single human-induced mortality due to ship strike or any other action is much more of a loss than if you have a population of 400 to 500 or several thousand,” Baxter said.
There was little that could be done to save the remaining whales other than to educate recreational boaties and ships captains to be extra vigilant and not to disturb them.
Baxter said people did not always behave well around southern right whales and it was important that they kept well clear and avoided separating calves from cows.
June until September are the key months for southern right whales as they are drawn from their southern feeding grounds to the warmer New Zealand waters for breeding.
Baxter said the conservation programme relied heavily on members of the public reporting sightings to the 0800 DOCHOT line (0800 36 24 68).