In July 2006 four Titi (Mutton Bird) islands off the Southwest Coast of Stewart Island, New Zealand, were the target of a rat eradication operation. This project was the culmination of years of work by Scientists from across the globe, in partnership with Rakiura Maori and the US Command Trustee Council. This is the story of the fight to restore these islands to their former glory.
Review Nathan Burdon Southland Times
A REMARKABLE BIRD: A titi (muttonbird) or sooty shearwater.
The latest release from South Coast Productions chronicles the story of the muttonbird and the strange quirk of fate which helped save the Titi islands. Nathan Burdon explains.
The question is often asked; what difference can one person make? Perhaps the story of the muttonbird, or titi, holds the answer.
It was one muttonbird which forged a link over thousands of kilometers of ocean between the United States and southern New Zealand and ensured the precious Titi islands would be started back on the path of ecological rejuvenation.
This compelling story has been recorded by the South Coast Production team of Dave Asher and Dave McCarlie.
It includes the annual hunting pilgrimage to the Titi islands by local Maori and the quirk of fate which linked the rite with an oil spill in California and would eventually lead to a rat eradication programme which is returning the islands to the way they used to be.
Muttonbirder Robert Coote said the decision to allow South Coast Productions to film on the islands had not been made lightly.
"It was put to the community and it was discussed fairly rigorously. It wasn't something the community was keen on (originally)." Most New Zealanders will never get an invitation to travel to the Titi islands and Mr Coote said the story was seen as a positive one for local Maori.
The completed film had reinforced the decision, Mr Coote said.
"It is a very precious place to a lot of people. We thought we were doing something positive. I think it's pretty well done." Mr Coote travels to the islands every year for three to four weeks of the muttonbirding season.
Others travel south for the entire season, landing in mid-March to prepare for the beginning of the hunt on April 1 and staying to the end of May.
"I go every year, it's my annual holiday. There's a few that go down for the whole season but it's increasingly difficult with work pressure and everything else." The titi, also known as the muttonbird or sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus), is an amazing bird, just how amazing scientists have only been able to discover through tracking them across the world.
Quite aside from the weird, alien taunting sound of the titi bird call, this small bird is capable of transporting itself around the greater part of the Pacific Ocean.
The titi completes a figure eight-shaped migration pattern over an average distance of 64,000km.
One particularly intrepid bird logged on satellite tracking devices travelled a wing-wearying 74,000km over a journey lasting 200 days.
From the breeding grounds in New Zealand, the titi will take just over a week to fly to Argentina before then setting off for the feeding grounds of Japan, a trip which takes an additional two weeks.
While stopping to feed for fish, titi can dive to depths of 70m but on average will go down only as far as 15m.
In other words, it's a plucky little beast, worthy of our admiration.
While its feeding habits often put it in harm's way of the fisherman's drift net, it was an oil spill off the coast of California which would bring the titi into the international spotlight.
In late September 1998, the Command, a trading ship, had released an estimated 3000 litres of intermediate bunker fuel into the ocean off California's central coast and had compounded the problem by not reporting the incident, which is against United States law.
After confirming the spill could not have come from any other ship, the US Coast Guard chased the Command all the way to central America, boarding and arresting those onboard.
The evidence against the ship's owners, the Pearl Shipping Corporation and Anax International Agencies, Inc, that they decided to pay whatever fines were handed down.
The bill was not inconsiderable, totalling more than $US5.5 million.
In the aftermath of the incident, 1000 birds from a wide variety of species washed up dead on the Californian coastline.
Of those 1000 birds, 11 were titi and of those 11 titi, one had been banded at a New Zealand breeding colony by Otago University — establishing a link which would become tremendously important.
Scientists estimated between 1500 and 30,000 titi might have died as a result of the oil spill and in a first for the US, the decision was made that part of the compensation — $NZ620,000 — from the ship's owners should be directed the way of the titi.
It was then decided that the best use of funds was to start a rat eradication programme to try to clear the pest from the islands.
The rats are thought to have made it to the islands aboard fishermen's boats some time during the 1960s and once established they had decimated the four main islands of Taukihepa, Pukeweka, Rerewhakaupoko and Mokonui.
O N Taukihepa, or Big South Cape, the lack of natural predators had meant it had previously been a home to many endemic birds, as well as a ground-dwelling bat and a flightless weevil which had not been found anywhere else.
The rat, which could grow 50 percent bigger than it did on the mainland, would change all that and the lament of the muttonbirders could be heard all the louder because there was no longer any chorus of birdsong coming from the trees.
Rats ate everything they could sink their teeth into and bred so fast that the problem had soon got out of control.
But, with funding from the Oikonos project following the Command spill, the Rakiura Titi Restoration Project was born, with four aims: to eradicate the non-native introduced rats, establish quarantine to prevent reintroduction of rats, monitor and predict restoration success and create educational outreach to inform the people of New Zealand and California about the project.
In 2006 the project began as a collaboration between several groups including Rakiura Maori, the Department of Conservation and Otago University with veteran helicopter pilot Peter Garden leading the dropping of poison bait by air.
Mr Coote, who is an executive member of Ka Mate Nga Kiore (Death to the Rat), said long hours of voluntary work had been required to reverse what had become an ecological disaster.
"There was a wee bit of work involved," an understated Mr Coote explains.
"But we were quite lucky the Otago University got us on to an organisation called Oikonos which was successful in getting funds from the Commond Oil spill trust, which was a major coup for us.
"It certainly made it happen. We had funding from other organisations, but the funding we got from the Command just expeditated the whole thing." Mr Coote said today the rats are gone and the challenge now was to ensure quarantine methods stopped them from coming back.
"It would be shattering to see them back there, they just destroyed everything. Anything which grew, they ate." Now that the nightmare of the rat is over, the dream is that the Titi islands will continue to be restored to their former glory.