$3m grant sought for ocean study

An estimated $3 million, five-year project to better understand the ocean environment of Otago's endangered species is being proposed.

The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and researchers from the University of Otago zoology and marine science departments, Massey University's Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences and the Department of Conservation are behind the research project.

To become a reality, the project needs funding and is applying to the Next Foundation, a new $100 million philanthropic organisation which supports up to three projects a year that promote and exemplify environmental and educational excellence.

Trust chairman Eric Shelton said the need for the study had been emphasised after two tough breeding seasons for the yellow-eyed penguins involving a mass mortality event and starvation.

Using the penguin as a ''bio-indicator'' species for marine species, the project aimed to find out why 82% of fledged penguins did not survive to return to land.

It would use ''state of the art tools'' to look at the penguins' foraging performance, disease, diet and breeding productivity in relation to marine conditions.

It was hoped as part of the project many agencies with an interest in the marine environment could collaborate to look at the ocean and how any changes were affecting species such as the penguin.

The five-year study would look at issues such as how changes in diet from oily fish to non-oily fish or changes in oceanographic conditions could affect the birds, he said.

''It is a short-term project. We are looking for an understanding. We do not expect a definitive answer but we might be able to dismiss some things.''

The trust last week sought support for its application to Next from the Otago Conservation Board.

Board chairman Pat Garden said the board was delighted to support the application.

''It's an extremely challenging project, trying to determine trends in that environment.''

rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz

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