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Exclusive: Canterbury Uni pulls plug on Antarctic study, cancels well-known scientist's contract

The University of Canterbury has suddenly cancelled a high-profile Antarctic study and parted ways with one of its most famous scientists, 1 NEWS can reveal.

The research on Type C killer whales, led by Regina Eisert, is key to the Government’s efforts to defend a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) which prevents illegal fishing in the Ross Sea.

A team of five were planning to fly to Scott Base in December with logistical support from Government agency Antarctica New Zealand, in what would have been the third installment of an ongoing monitoring project. The group includes a young master's degree student at the university who had won an Antarctic scholarship.

However, the university had refused to sign off on the trip just a few weeks before it was due to start, despite several months of logistical planning.

After 1 NEWS questioned the cancellation, the university took a step further, saying a "complex employment matter" had been resolved and Ms Eisert, who is on a fixed-term contract, will no longer work for the university from tomorrow.

Ms Eisert declined to comment but 1 NEWS understands the move gives her the freedom to pursue the trip as an independent scientist.

The university’s decision has shocked Stuart Prior, the former head of Antarctic Policy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who described the study as a “project of world significance”.

“It has already been producing results which have attracted the attention of some of the best around the world, who want to work here in New Zealand, on exactly this project and it's very hard to understand why this project has been brought to a complete halt,” he says.

“This is about the New Zealand national interest. This is far too important to let slip the opportunity to build on a foundation, which, I know from my international contacts, has already created such interest.”

The study was created to monitor the new Marine Protected Area established in the Ross Sea in 2017, as part of our Government's long-running campaign to prevent toothfish fishing.

It looks at Type C killer whales which, as apex predators that eat toothfish, are one of the focal species affected by the international agreement.

It is primarily funded by a three-year, $200,000 marine fellowship, and has won praise from international scientists.

High-ranking British professor Lloyd Peck, who is a science leader at the British Antarctic Survey and fellow at Cambridge University, says it’s the only study of its kind in the world.

“It’s significant because it’s one of the longest studies of this type anywhere,” he says.

“The type of data this project produces are key pieces of data for formulating policy in future for conservation, and for helping international community to decide how well the Marine Protected Area is working.”

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs described the Ross Sea MPA as a “huge environmental, scientific and diplomatic achievement” today but would not comment on the developments.

“The MPA is not only incredibly important in terms of achieving global cooperation to protect this pristine environment, but also in distinguishing between the effects of fishing, climate change, and other factors. Effective research and monitoring programs are crucial to do this,” a spokesperson said.

“The Ross Sea has been called ‘the least altered marine ecosystem on earth’ which means it’s still home to an unbroken food chain with its full suite of predators from killer whales and seals, down to microscopic plankton. There really is nowhere else on Earth like it.”

New Zealand Antarctic Society Canterbury co-chair Shirley Russ says the news will come as a surprise to the Antarctic community, as it was rare for a field trip to be cancelled at such a late stage.

“It's really quite late in the piece. The Antarctic season's well underway, scientists will have all their planning done, and she would be looking to be there out in the field very soon, so it is a surprise at this late notice,” she says.

“We'd be wanting to understand why and support Regina if we can.”

Mr Prior, who also helped to establish the Gateway Antarctica programme where Ms Eisert had been working at the University of Canterbury, hopes the research can continue.

“If we don't follow through on the research, like Dr Eisert is doing, and others will be doing, then the research will be done by others, it will happen to us,” he says.

“Do we in New Zealand want to sit on the sidelines with our hands on our backsides, on our chair, while others decide what's going to happen in the Ross Sea region?”

Discussion will now begin with Antarctica New Zealand on whether the trip can continue in this new independent capacity.

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Regina Eisert, one of the university’s most famous scientists, was studying a protected marine area in the Ross Sea. Source: 1 NEWS