While the Dolphins Play

If you are going to howl, or howl in support, make sure you’ve heard from all sides first.

Glynn Cardy
Glynn Cardy

While The Dolphins Play by Rev Glynn Cardy

On Palm Sunday this year there were howls heard around the country. The smallest and rarest of our dolphins, the Upokohue/Hector’s, had frolicked into a high-speed racetrack, and there they stayed, effectively postponing then cancelling a day of racing for the international SailGP series.

The main howler was Sir Russell Coutts, CEO of SailGP, arguably NZ’s most successful sailor, and he was soon joined by a chorus of sport’s commentators, talk-back followers, and even the prime minister and his soon-to-be deputy.

In short, Sir Russell thought the rules that stated dolphins should have right-of-way were overblown, and they would get out of the way. He called zoology professor Liz Slotten, who said the Hector dolphins were endangered, a liar. He was highly critical of the Lyttelton harbourmaster, DOC, Environment Canterbury, and the local iwi Ngati Wheke. The gist of it all was that he felt SailGP had been forced into signing an extreme and costly dolphin protection plan, and now they were going to pack up their bags and boats and never return to Christchurch.

Coutts said that allowing foiling catamarans, travelling at speeds up to 90 km/hr, to race in the Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary was analogous to driving a car to work, saying both activities involve risk.

The prime minister, Chris Luxon, supporting Coutts, said the race cancellation was typical of the country’s “obstruction economy.” His future deputy, David Seymour, echoed the driving analogy: “People die. People die terribly from car crashes. I mean, why did you drive to work? You take risks every day.”

Others in Coutts's supporting chorus, primarily the talk-back brigade, called it ridiculous that an international sporting event bringing millions of dollars into the economy had to cater to minority interests.

But as Holy Week progressed, to the credit of journalists who still have jobs and still ask questions, other perspectives were put before the public.

Liz Slooten, in the best of biblical traditions, took the car driving analogy and said in effect no-one is saying you can’t drive, but racing in a city street, or in this case a children’s playground, is another matter.  And, yes, contra Coutts, Upokohue/Hector’s are in fact endangered (see International Union for Conservation of Nature), classified as “Threatened – Nationally Vulnerable,” which means they face a high risk of extinction in the medium term.  And they are only found in New Zealand.

The children’s playground analogy works well for a marine mammal sanctuary, with mothers and calves present. If you enter the sanctuary, ‘children’ have the right of way. It is a safe place for them. What is slightly incredible in this howling affair, as Russell Norman of Greenpeace points out, is why was high-speed racing even considered in such a place.

Yet, it was well-considered. DOC, Ngati Wheke, and others when asked pointed out that SailGP knew they were racing in an area where dolphin safety had to take a priority, and had voluntarily signed up to a management plan, with its costs, to ensure it. Dolphins (‘children’) had right of way, you could only race when they weren’t there. This was the plan that Coutts was saying was "forced" on SailGP.

Other journalists pointed out that the brand marketing of SailGP relies heavily on promoting themselves as protectors of the ocean and its creatures. Only a fortnight ago Andrew Thompson, SailGP Managing Director said about the Marine Mammal Protection Plan: “It’s an industry-leading example of SailGP’s commitment to the environments in which we operate.”

One would have thought that cancelling a day’s racing could have been spun as part of that marketing. “Here we are, champions of the ocean, giving dolphins priority even when it hurts our pocket.” Or think of the negative impact on their marketing if racing had proceeded and a rare dolphin had been butchered (crucified) in front of 50 million TV viewers.

So, some holy lessons for this week that was:

If you are going to howl, or howl in support, make sure you’ve heard from all sides first. And make sure the analogy you use isn’t going to reverse to run your argument over.

If you are going to howl, make sure you’re clear on the specifics, rather than generalize about obstructive economies, bureaucracies, and other things you don’t like.

If you are going to howl, howl to protect the vulnerable rather than your own pocket.

Don’t howl about something you’ve agreed to, an agreement based on principles that your own marketing continues to promote. Don’t say you’re green and then be mean about it.

Meanwhile, thank God, the dolphins play on.

Photo: Greenpeace

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