Rugby player drove powerboat into endangered birds

Matt Jurlina was charged with hunting or killing protected marine wildlife after posting a video...
Matt Jurlina was charged with hunting or killing protected marine wildlife after posting a video of him skippering a speed boat through a flock of endangered birds.
A social media content creator who drove a powerboat into a flock of endangered birds at speed - then boasted of the likely fatal collision on Instagram - argued today that he shouldn’t be convicted of the crime because it might damage his professional rugby prospects.

A judge, however, rejected 24-year-old Matt Jurlina’s request, instead entering a conviction and ordering him to pay a fine of $2500.

The Riverhead, Auckland, resident was skippering his boat on the Hauraki Gulf near Simpson’s Rock in September 2022 when he charged the vessel at an estimated 30 knots into a large flock of fairy prions, or tītī wainui, which had been resting on the calm surface.

“As it approached the flock the boat made no attempt to slow or deviate its course to avoid striking the birds,” court documents state. “The occupants of the boat are heard yelling and laughing in the video as they pass through the flock. The video also included the text, ‘We f**kn love birds ay,’ and laughing emojis.”

An ornithologist who reviewed the four-second video for prosecutors noted that birds were likely to have been hit and would have either died immediately or died from starvation if they had suffered broken bones.

Jurlina, who chronicles his international travels and outdoorsman activities to about 2500 followers on his public Instagram account, later came to the attention of the Department of Conservation after a member of the public alerted them to the post.

“We were horrified by the video,” DoC investigator and spokesperson Dylan Swain said outside the courtroom at North Shore District Court this afternoon.

“It’s just a gross disregard for wildlife. These are animals that are in their natural habitat doing their thing, and to have a speedboat driven straight through the middle of them with no attempt to slow down or deviate course - and then to hear the laughing about it in the video - is extremely disappointing.”

Jurlina was charged with hunting or killing prohibited marine wildlife, which carries a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

In an October 2022 interview with DoC, Jurlina acknowledged he was driving the boat while also filming that day. He said he didn’t notice the birds until it was too late, and he felt that sudden deceleration would put his four passengers at risk.

“I’d rather a few birds get hurt than a few people,” he said in the interview, adding of his decision to post the video on social media: “I didn’t view what I had done as serious and potentially caused damage. I just kind of like done this thing accidentally, and then for that brief two, three, four, five minutes, thought it was a little bit funny.”

Defence lawyer Mireama Houra said today that her client was very remorseful for his actions and reiterated her client’s view that he had no other choice when considering the safety of his passengers. She read from a bird guide noting that fairy prions are often hard to see on the water due to their colouring.

Houra pointed out that her client had in recent months played for Croatia’s national rugby team and has aspirations to play professional or international rugby both in Europe and for New Zealand.

A conviction, she argued, might stymie his potential by making it more difficult for him to travel internationally.

But prosecutor Pip McNabb noted that Jurlina had previously been convicted in 2017, at the age 17, for assaulting a security guard who had caught him and his friends trespassing. That existing conviction, she noted, hasn’t dampened his ability to play overseas so far.

McNabb played the video, which has since been removed from social media, during today’s hearing. Judge Kathryn Maxwell referred to it before declining the discharge without conviction request.

“I’m not entirely sure that I accept your position ... that you did not intend to hurt or kill the birds,” the judge said. “What you say appears to be at odds with what is clearly visible in that Instagram post.

“...You prioritised capturing the footage rather than slowing down.”

The fact that the offending was only discovered after it was posted on social media underscores why deterrence for these types of crimes is so important, she added.

Swain, the DoC official, said outside court today that it is not unusual “in the social media age” to receive tips like the one that resulted in Jurlina’s conviction. He thanked the tipster in the current case and offered a warning to others who post crimes on social media.

“We do find out about it,” he said.