Tourists are slowly returning to New Zealand after the nation lifted Covid-19 pandemic travel restrictions, but a new threat looms on the horizon.
Now experts are warning sperm and blue whales could flee the country's northern waters in the coming decades, leading to negative socioeconomic consequences in towns reliant on the sector.
In a report published in the journal Ecological Indicators, scientists have predicted a latitudinal shift in suitable habitat for sperm and blue whales as a result of climate change.
Their modelling of New Zealand’s warming waters estimates by 2100, a worst-case emissions scenario could contribute to a 61 per cent habitat loss for sperm whales, and a 42 per cent loss for blue whales.
Research lead Dr Katharina Peters from the University of Canterbury warned even the best-case climate change scenario results in “notable changes in the distribution of suitable habitat”.
Year-round whale watching could cease in hotspot
Kaikoura on the South Island is world famous for its unique deep-water canyon that attracts sperm whales closer to shore than anywhere else in the world.
The current conditions allow the species to flourish in the waters year-round, but changes in water temperature could lead to “fewer and less reliable sightings” as the whales migrate to new habitat.
Massey University’s Professor Karen Stockin was a study co-author, and she warns the area’s whale watching industry “may be at potential risk due to fewer and less reliable sightings”.
“Such changes in sperm whale distribution would have socioeconomic impacts due to the direct and indirect reliance on the whale watching activities by the local economy,” she said.
Glimmer of hope for New Zealand's whales
While New Zealand’s northern waters will likely become more hostile, there are parts of the South Island and some offshore islands which could provide new underwater refuges for whales.
Flinders University’s Dr Frederik Saltre, a senior study author says identifying these areas “provides an opportunity for their increased protection in the future”.
He argues this should be considered when designing marine protected areas and undertaking oil and gas exploration.
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