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University of Canterbury's sudden cancellation of Antarctic study a 'betrayal of opportunities' - marine expert

The University of Canterbury's sudden cancellation of a high-profile Antarctic study a "betrayal of opportunities" for research into the Ross Sea by the former Antarctica head at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Last night, 1 NEWS revealed the University of Canterbury had cancelled the study weeks before a team of five was due to head to Scott Base.

The university also parted ways with one of its most famous scientists, Dr Regina Eisert, who was studying Type C killer whales in a key Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Ross Sea. The trip is now reliant on whether the scientist can go independent of the university.

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 today.

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

SHOCKING

Former head of Antarctic Policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Stuart Prior, called the news shocking, noting that the University of Canterbury "had shown considerable wisdom and strategic foresight in bringing Dr Eisert to New Zealand from Washington".

"The purpose of bringing her was to bring in the knowledge of top predators that was crucial to New Zealand’s obligations under the protected area of the Ross Sea," he told TVNZ1’s Breakfast this morning.

"In the time she has been at Canterbury, she has built up international contacts, international reputation, and has demonstrated a huge opportunity for New Zealand to provide leadership and collaboration in the study of one of the most significant components of the marine ecosystem."

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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

Mr Prior called the Ross Sea "a superb laboratory", adding that Ms Eisert's research, along with international collaborators, had "proven the huge significance of whales, cetaceans, and seals, to their health and direction the ecosystem is taking."

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.

ENVIRONMENTAL GAP

The cancellation of the expedition could "absolutely" lead to a gap in our environmental knowledge of a significant part of the world, he said.

"Science does not happen overnight – it builds up," he said. "I'm thinking that many, many years ago, New Zealand started to drill in the Ross Sea region.

"20 years later, 25 years later, New Zealand is a global leader in climate change. The work that is being done on whales, top predators in the Ross Sea, has now been going five, six years, and is building up huge potential momentum.

"Stopping it at this point would be a dereliction of duty, and damage to New Zealand national interests. I would use the word 'betrayal' of opportunities for future generations."

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Former Antarctic head at MFAT, Stuart Prior, joined Breakfast to discuss the cancellation. Source: Breakfast