The Forgotten Islands: Pest control plan halted by Covid-19 (2022)

They are known as the “Forgotten Islands”, uninhabited because of their remote, hostile landscape and harsh climate.

Now conservationists are worried the Auckland Islands archipelago will fall into neglect once again, after Covid-19 forced the abandonment of what was to be the world's most ambitious predator control programme.

The Maukahuka Pest Free Auckland Island project was to rid the 46,000ha Auckland Island of feral pigs, cats and mice that have inflicted severe ecological damage over the past two centuries.

It is the last island in the New Zealand subantarctic region where mammalian pests remain, and the programme would have allowed the recovery of 38 native bird species, more than 280 species of native insects, and almost 200 types of native flora.

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The Forgotten Islands: Pest control plan halted by Covid-19 (1)

The five subantarctic island groups are some of the most pristine places on Earth and an important breeding ground for seabirds and marine mammals, vital while nature loss is at an unprecedented level in the history of mankind.

But the estimated cost was between $60-100 million over 10 years. And with the country’s borders closed to fend off the coronavirus pandemic, Department of Conservation boss Lou Sanson says he decided to put the programme on hold as revenue from international tourism dried up.

Transport to the uninhabited archipelago, which lies 465 kilometres from the South Island, was complicated by charter vessels being deployed overseas and investigations into a helicopter crash at the islands in 2019.

Sanson, the department’s director-general, said: “In the first week of Covid, the money virtually disappeared. Plus, we started to lose all our concession revenue [from commercial tourism operations on public conservation land] ...

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“This is a crisis. We have to shut down some things that we can't sustain ... so I made the call to put this one into what I call hibernation.”

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Work on eradication had begun in the wake of the success of the ‘million-dollar mouse’ project, to rid Antipodes Island of 200,000 mice.

That was led by DOC, with funding support from the Morgan Foundation, Island Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, and public donations. It was hoped Maukahuka would also be part-funded through philanthropy.

The surrounding Enderby, Disappointment and Adams islands are all pest free, allowing sea lions, penguins and other seabirds to thrive.

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Trials began in 2018 and 2019 to see if the challenge was possible. Mice and pigs have never been eradicated on an island this large, and the removal of cats was attempted on one larger island, in Western Australia.

It is the largest subantarctic island, 42km long and 23km wide, with dense scrub, boggy terrain, a coastal perimeter of 374km, and steep peaks.

The western side is dominated by 400m cliffs battered by pounding waves and southwesterly gales from Antarctica. Rain falls on most days.

Infrastructure is limited to a base camp for seven people, an old six-bunk hut and several derelict historic structures.

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Over a year, staff installed a base at Smith Harbour, with two huts, a shelter and high-speed internet, and cut 17.6 km of track.

They estimated the project would need 15 huts, costing up to $120,000 each, three hangars and boat sheds, 80km of tracks ($180,000) and 8km of fence ($300k).

Transport logistics would cost anything between $20,000 and $100,000 per day, excluding fuel.

There are up to 1500 feral cats roaming the island, introduced by settlers in the 1820s. They prey on native land birds, seabirds and invertebrates and compete with birds for food.

The team caught 16 cats and fitted GPS collars to monitor their movement for 24 months, and trialled trail cameras. They ascertained that developing and registering aerially-distributed toxic bait to target cats would take five years.

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Mice arrived at Auckland Island as stowaways on ships in the 1820s, and they eat up to 20 times a day, unbalancing the ecosystem. Wiping them out would involve an estimated 500 to 600 tonnes of bait, and 880 hours of flying, requiring 6-8 helicopters.

Pigs were brought in by sealers in 1807 and have devastated the habitat by trampling and rooting, including unique megaherbs, and preyed on ground-nesting birds, eating adults and chicks, and endemic earthworms.

There are around 200 pigs, and they would have been the first pest to be removed.

The programme was due to begin last July, and up to $3m had already been committed. Sanson says there will be no more money in this year’s Budget.

“They needed, I think, $10m this year, to put the capital programme in place to do the next phase of cat research [and] pig research ... The Government's been very clear that it's an invite-only process ... that they're not running a large bidding process.”

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As operations manager in Southland, Sanson led the operation to clear Enderby Island, which was completed in 2011, and says taking the decision wasn’t easy.

“It was on a scale of ambition that the world has never seen. We think we just about had the technology.

“But once we come out of this, and the visitor levy comes back on, and we're able to get partners: let's go full steam ahead.”

Stuff understands DoC ordered a review and that the former conservation minister, Green MP Eugenie Sage, was unhappy at the decision.

“Maukahuka/Auckland Islands is one of our biodiversity hotspots, certainly in the top five of ecological management units in Aotearoa New Zealand. It deserves investment for conservation purposes, getting rid of feral cats, pigs and mice was certainly an objective of mine as Minister,” Sage said on Tuesday.

“We really, as a country, need to be investing and starting this project properly, and carrying it through.”

She said the initial fieldwork showed how complex the operation would be, and confirmed DoC struggled to attract investment partners.

“I don't think New Zealanders realise just how much energy and effort and voluntary commitment is required for these eradication projects ... it was looking like an $80 to $100 million project, over 10 years.

“And so there was an operational decision made to cease funding it.”

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She added: “I think, with these big projects that involve a huge amount of expertise, both from within the department, and really skilled operators, like the helicopter pilots and all the provisioning, these projects need to be really well managed.

“The Department has, in the past, tended to perhaps under-estimate the work required. So, as a result of this, there's been a greater recognition of the need for substantial project management and engagement by senior management of the organisation.”

Kiritapu Allan took over the portfolio after last year’s election.

In a statement, she said: “Covid impacted on a considerable number of projects across the board. I am advised that DOC is reviewing its portfolio of projects as to the next steps.

“Obviously, it’s important before any funding is signed off that a proper planning process has been completed. In this case, I understand a feasibility study is expected to be finalised by the end of the month.”

She said any Budget decisions made would only be announced when it was released.

Rick Zwaan, Forest & Bird regional conservation manager, said ridding the island of pests would contribute significantly to the Government’s goal to make New Zealand predator free by 2050.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that DOC appear to have put the restoration of the Maungahuka/Auckland Islands ‘on hold’.

“The Auckland Islands are the jewel in the crown of Aotearoa’s subantarctic islands and home to significant plants like southern rātā...invertebrates such as a wētā found nowhere else, and an internationally recognised hotspot for breeding seabirds like the iconic Antipodean Albatross.”

Zwaan said “significant planning” had already been undertaken. “It’ll be difficult but possible. There’s already significant support for the project and all that’s needed is a dedicated focus and drive to get the resources needed to pull it off.”

He’s concerned focus has shifted from the programme to Rakiura/Stewart Island. “Both projects are really important and should be supported but the current plan for Rakiura/Stewart Island currently doesn’t aim to eradicate deer which pose a significant threat to native species.

“Whereas, the focus on Auckland Islands would eradicate all predators for good making it a haven for native wildlife once again.”

All of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands are National Nature Reserves, the highest possible conservation status, and they have UNESCO World Heritage status, alongside the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest.

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The halt to Maukahuka is another blow for conservationists who called the region the Galapagos of the South, because it is home to some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on earth.

Last year the Government bowed to fishing industry pressure and refused to extend a marine reserve around Campbell Island, a subantarctic sanctuary recognised for its value in conserving and maintaining unique creatures.

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