Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Integrated conservation of the Whenua Hou Diving Petrel

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posted on 2021-12-09, 10:58 authored by Johannes Fischer

Seabirds are one of the most threatened taxa on the planet. These species are also considered ecosystem engineers. Therefore, seabirds are of particular conservation interest. One of the most threatened seabirds is the critically endangered Whenua Hou Diving Petrel (Pelecanoides whenuahouensis; WHDP). The WHDP is restricted to a minute (0.018 km2) breeding colony on a single island — Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), Aotearoa (New Zealand). The WHDP population was estimated at 150 adults in 2005. The WHDP is threatened by storms and storm surges, which erode its breeding habitat (fragile foredunes), and potentially by competition for burrows with congenerics.  I aimed to inform suitable conservation strategies for the WHDP. I first quantified the efficacy of past conservation actions (eradications of invasive predators). I compiled burrow counts across four decades to estimate and compare population growth before and after predator eradications. I then investigated offshore threats using tracking data to quantify WHDP offshore distribution, behaviour, and overlap with commercial fishing efforts. Subsequently, I estimated the potential impact and success of WHDP translocations. Specifically, I combined capture-recapture, nest-monitoring, and count data in an integrated population model (IPM) to predict the impact of harvesting chicks for translocations on the source population and to project the establishment of a second population. I then informed future translocation protocols using nest-monitoring data to quantify nest survival and breeding biology. Finally, I tested if WHDP presence had a positive influence on unrelated species groups. I counted two skink species at sites with and without burrows and used occupancy modelling to quantify the influence WHDP burrows had on skink occurrence.  Estimates of population growth before and after predator eradications illustrated that WHDP population growth remained comparatively low and unaffected by this conservation strategy. Therefore, additional interventions are required. WHDP tracking revealed that the non-breeding distribution did not overlap with commercial fishing efforts. However, considerable fishing efforts were present within the breeding distribution. Despite these findings, onshore threats remain present and conservation strategies aimed at addressing terrestrial threats may be more feasible. Results from my IPM showed that translocations could successfully establish a second WHDP population without impacting the source excessively, provided translocation cohorts remain small and translocations are repeated over long time periods (5-10 years). Nest survival was not clearly influenced by interannual variation, distance to sea, and intra- or interspecific competition. Furthermore, I informed future translocation protocols by identifying the preferred harvest window, measurements of ideal translocation candidates, and feeding regimes. Occurrence of one skink species was 114% higher at sites with burrows than at sites without, suggesting that WHDP presence benefits unrelated species.  The information provided in this thesis facilitates the identification of future management strategies for this critically endangered species. However, future conservation management of the WHDP should be based on structured decision-making frameworks that apply iterative adaptive management loops and must acknowledge the unique position of tangata whenua (people of the land). This approach could address the consequences and trade-offs of each alternative, account for uncertainty, facilitate the decolonisation of conservation biology, and would ultimately result in the best potential outcome of the target species in a truly integrated fashion.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Conservation Biology

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Wittmer, Heiko; Armstrong, Doug; Debski, Igor