Could Fijian seabird upset NZ Seabird of the Year poll?

The Fiji petrel and the New Zealand fairy tern are continuing to jostle for the lead in the poll to find New Zealand’s most popular seabird, as the competition enters its final week. 

The lead in the poll has swung dramatically between the two species over the last two weeks. As of 11:24 a.m. Monday, the fairy tern led the Fiji petrel by just 124 votes.   

The poll - www.seabirdoftheyear.org.nz - is run by the independent conservation charity Forest & Bird.

The Fiji petrel was included in the poll because Fiji is one of New Zealand’s closest Pacific neighbours, and because only 50 Fiji petrels are thought to remain. NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, which is working to protect the Fiji petrel, is a member of the global conservation organisation BirdLife International, as is Forest & Bird.   

The Fiji petrel is considered a tabu (taonga) in Fijian custom.

The fairy tern only breeds at four sites in Northland, and only 8 – 10 breeding pairs are thought to remain. Fairy terns are vulnerable to being run over by four-wheel-drive vehicles, as they nest in small depressions in the sand.  

The little blue penguin is in third place, with 364 votes. Conservation Minister Maggie Barry is acting as the penguin’s campaign manager.

Other seabirds are trailing far behind at this point, including New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters’ Buller’s shearwater, Green Party Co-Leader Metiria Turei’s brown skua, United Future leader Peter Dunne’s northern royal albatross, Green MP Eugenie Sage’s red-billed gull, and Labour MP Ruth Dyson’s Fiordland penguin. 

Forest & Bird Group Manager Campaigns and Advocacy Kevin Hackwell says the Fiji petrel’s strong form in the poll is a surprise.

“We included the Fiji petrel in the interests of geopolitical diplomacy and being a good neighbour within the conservation sector,” Kevin Hackwell says. 

“New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone extends north of the Kermadec Islands and ends fewer than 500 nautical miles from where the Fiji petrels breed. So there is a possibility these rare birds might occasionally feed in our waters.

“The idea that the people of Fiji would support ‘their’ bird to the extent that it has led the poll several times – and could still win -  did not seem possible two weeks ago.

“Like the New Zealand fairy tern, the Fiji petrel has been badly affected by introduced predators.

“New Zealand is a seabird superpower. But we acknowledge that some of our closest neighbours have some pretty special seabird species of their own,” Kevin Hackwell says.    

More than one-third of the world’s seabird species breed or spend at least some of their lives inside New Zealand territory. Thirty-six of those species only breed in New Zealand. Nearly half the 86 seabirds in total that breed in New Zealand are threatened with extinction.

The Seabird of the Year poll runs until November 24. The winner of the poll will be announced early in the afternoon of the 24th.