26 Apr 2017

Kaikōura's seals on the mend after quake

7:14 pm on 26 April 2017

Seal populations displaced from a coastal sanctuary by the Kaikōura earthquake are recovering as they seek new locations, the Department of Conservation (DOC) says.

A seal pup on the Kaikōura coast.

Seals were starting to colonise new territory around a landslip covering what had been a major breeding site. Photo: 123rf.com

The magnitude 7.8 quake triggered a large slip at the Ohau Point seal sanctuary, and DOC was concerned it might have killed and injured many seals.

Operations director Roy Grose said the seals were already colonising new territory to the north and south of the slip, which had hit a significant portion of an important breeding site.

He said DOC was working closely with the NZ Transport Agency and KiwiRail as they rebuilt State Highway 1 and rail links along the Kaikōura coast.

"DOC marine mammal experts are reporting that overall the seals have been remarkably resilient to the impacts of the earthquake and the subsequent work to reopen transport links," Mr Grose said.

He said they had also seen positive results from the Transport Agency's trial earlier this year of fencing and herding seals away from areas where work was being carried out.

The seals were learning to keep away from electric fences, he said.

The scale of the slip, with enough material to "fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools" can be seen from the air.

The slip at Ohau Point, soon after the earthquake Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Pasons-King

Marlborough Conservation Board deputy chair Gina Solomon said earlier that, while there was a huge push to get the highway open, there was less thought about conservation or the environment.

The board estimated that by early this year there were about 1500 seal pups along a 2-3km stretch of coastline.

Mrs Solomon said opinion was sought from various conservation authorities and experts and electric fences were found to be the best at protecting the seals from further harm.

Ohau Point Seal Colony

A piece of rubble on the road near the seal colony Photo: RNZ

Mr Grose said it was an unprecedented situation.

"The combination of heavy landslides along a vital part of our state highway and rail network and a dense population of seals is something we haven't experienced before.

"We will continue to support this work, provide advice and monitor impacts as it progresses," he said.

Seals are protected animals in New Zealand.

The road north of Kaikōura remains closed while extensive work is carried out to clear slips and restore road and rail links.

The Transport Agency said it was on track to have the road re-opened by December.