Opposing views on observation area for Sumpter Wharf shags

Otago shags gather on Sumpter Wharf, in Oamaru Harbour. Photo: Stephen Jquiery
Otago shags gather on Sumpter Wharf, in Oamaru Harbour. Photo: Stephen Jquiery
Since being closed to the public, Oamaru’s historic Sumpter Wharf has become a breeding colony for Otago’s only endemic seabird, the Otago shag. This year, the colony, which has stymied some development in Oamaru Harbour, is expected to become the species’ largest colony and now the Waitaki District Council appears poised to embrace the seabird. Hamish MacLean reports.

With an increasing number of visitors stopping for a look at the Otago shags nesting on the 1884 Sumpter Wharf in Oamaru Harbour, a dedicated "viewing area" for the little-understood seabirds is in the works. And yet, some advocates for the species remain wary of the proposal.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said a $35,000 recommendation from the Waitaki District Council’s harbour area committee could help "tidy up" the area, and allow people back on to a small portion of the historic wharf while maintaining a "respectful distance" from the rare birds.

"Many of us who grew up here fished off [the wharf]. It’s part of our history, being able to go on to it, and access it. The idea is to provide just the first bit of decking where people can go on to it — and it will allow viewing of the birds in a way that they are still comfortable," Mr Kircher said.

"At the moment, people stand at the fence, and it’s a pretty ugly fence. It was put up as a safety measure and a temporary one.

"A lot of people are stopping and looking and we can actually tidy the place up a bit, create a fence which is still going to be a barrier in the same sort of way ... it’s going to look a bit better than what’s there at the moment."

Despite calls from heritage advocates in Oamaru for repairs to the ageing wharf, the report to the harbour area committee recommends only a "new and friendly version" of the current fencing and some structural work, allowing people out to the third pile from the shore.

"There’s definitely a number of piles that need replacing or supporting in some way, so we’re still going to prevent people from going on to it, both from a safety point of view, but also to avoid upsetting the birds," Mr Kircher said.

The proposal, which has yet to receive approval from the council, has not been reviewed by a wildlife expert.

But the colony has caused conservationists and experts to question other Oamaru Harbour proposals, including a now amended plan for a zipline from Cape Wanbrow on to the breakwater.

"Just observation shows that the birds are not upset by people being that distance away from them," Mr Kircher said.

A spotted shag in breeding plumage rests on Sumpter Wharf, in Oamaru. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
A spotted shag in breeding plumage rests on Sumpter Wharf, in Oamaru. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
"They are upset, as has been shown, if a drone flies right above them. And obviously, if people are walking next to them, they probably have a tendency to fly off, but if people are standing a respectful distance like we are proposing, that’s fine."

Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony research scientist Dr Philippa Agnew said she, too, had seen an increasing number of visitors stop at the wharf, but said a different option should be considered.

"What I think would be really cool would be a viewing platform on the shore," she said.

A raised platform near the base of Sumpter Wharf would add to the area, give a different perspective on the birds, and avoid disturbance, Dr Agnew said.

"People could climb up on to it and actually get a really good view of the wharf, and of the birds," she said.

"I think that would be a lot more special and unique than being able to walk out on to the platform. I think it would be really cool to be able to see the birds from that perspective."

The current spacing of what were effectively two fences at the start of the wharf created "quite a large spatial barrier" between the birds and humans and dissuaded people from walking on to the structure.

"We’re just gradually pushing these birds further and further away from human habitation. We don’t have to — we can embrace them and look after them," Dr Agnew said.

University of Otago palaeoecologist Dr Nic Rawlence also advocated for a viewing area that was not attached to the wharf itself.

Dr Rawlence, who opposed the initial proposal for a zipline that he said would have infringed upon the space the birds required, said he feared a lowered fence could entice people on to the wharf. And while the birds were susceptible to disturbances from light pollution and drones, disturbance from noise, which could occur during the proposed renovations, was also a concern.

"We’d be worried about how much noise and disturbance [construction] is going to create, vibrations and everything, doing that work, how much is that going to travel through the wharf," he said.

"I’d rather have a viewing off the wharf, off to the side — because you could get a much better view," he said.

"You’re not going to disturb or endanger the birds with renovations."

A council spokeswoman said the recommendation would go to the July 31 council meeting for a decision.

At the council’s June 26 meeting, councillors decided to install information panels about the birds.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

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