Chris Lalas


YOB: 1950
Experience: Marine Ecologist
Regions: Otago, Catlins, Foveaux Strait, Rakiura/Stewart Island, Fiordland
Interview Location: Harwood, Otago Peninsula, NZ
Interview Date: 26 January 2016
Post Date: 16 September 2017; Copyright © 2017 Chris Lalas and Steve Crawford


CRAWFORD: I believe you told me you were born in Australia - what year was that, Chris?

LALAS: 1950. I'm 66 years old.

CRAWFORD: When did you emigrate and/or start spending a significant amount of time in New Zealand?

LALAS: I immigrated in 1973, and seriously started working on the coast with the early years of postgrad work, which would have started 1975 based in Otago Harbour and the surrounding coast. Then for my PhD that started 1977, that was broadening up. It ended up being focused on the diet of Southern New Zealand Shags, Cormorants. So, I spent a lot of time on the Otago Peninsula, Stewart Island, Marlborough Sound and one long trip to Chatham Islands.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Let's back up for a bit. I think you referred to it as a first episode - you said you were focusing your efforts mostly within Otago Harbour?

LALAS: Yes. That was an MSc, and then I went on to do a PhD in the Department of Zoology. I think I started in 1975, and I know I finished in 1977. But I took a long time. I ran out of money. 

CRAWFORD: What was the key ecological uncertainty for your Master's thesis? What was your research question?

LALAS: That was back in the day when nobody knew anything, so I literally selected a species and found out about them. I studied Black-Fronted Terns, where essentially all that was known was where they breed. And that was about it.

CRAWFORD: A migratory species?

LALAS: No, it’s dispersive inland in summer, and coastal in winter.

CRAWFORD: For the field component of that thesis, you spent most of your time in Otago Harbour?

LALAS: The inland stuff was based at [Mount Cook], and the coastal stuff in Otago Harbour.

CRAWFORD: Did you ever go outside the harbour for your MSc work?

LALAS: Just briefly - a couple of trips. It was more the PhD that I went with the other stuff.

CRAWFORD: For your Tern research, the MSc thesis, specifically for the time you spent on Otago Harbour - was there a seasonality to it? 

LALAS: Yes. When the Terns were here, roughly from about January through to July-August.

CRAWFORD: During that period, what kinds of surveys were you doing in the harbour?

LALAS: I was finding hot spots for being able to record them feeding. They're a Tern that glides around. It doesn't pick stuff up off the water. I found the ideal spot to study them at Wellers Rock.

CRAWFORD: Were you surveying from both land and water?

LALAS: No, just from land. I had the question of what are they eating, and at what rate are they eating. And I found the best spot that would give me that information.

CRAWFORD: Your observations were shore-based, but you were watching the birds interacting with the marine system?

LALAS: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: When you were involved in your field work, were your surveys every day, or once per week, or what?

LALAS: A couple of times per week, I suppose. It was tidal-influenced and weather-influenced. For example, I only went out on calm days so as not to have to account for weather. I made the weather conditions, environmental conditions, tide as well, constant across the surveys.

CRAWFORD: That’s good to know, in terms of your observations. Let’s talk about your PhD field work. That started in 1977. If there was one overarching research question for that thesis, what would it have been?

LALAS: How do species differ in foraging. So, that involves where they feed, how they feed, and what they're feeding on.

CRAWFORD: Which set of species?

LALAS: Cormorants - we call them Shags. In the harbour here, we have three species that are common and one that is rare. So, we've got a total of four species here.

CRAWFORD: And you also introduced a new level of spatial stratification? You said you had work that was undertaken in Otago Harbour, but also you did some work around Stewart Island?

LALAS: Based at Paterson Inlet - and Ackers Point, because Ackers Point gives a nice panorama.

CRAWFORD: In that case, some semi-enclosed waters - but also you had some open ocean exposure at Ackers Point?

LALAS: And I did a couple of field trips, before the formation of DOC - which was 1987 I think. The conservation work down there was done by Forestry Service and Lands and Survey. Forestry Service had a very nice boat, and I got in with the ranger there - he would take me places, so we went out to various islands in Foveaux Strait

CRAWFORD: Islands - as in Bench Island, Edwards Island, the northern Titi Islands?

LALAS: No. The small stuff that had birds. Places without people. A lot of the islands were closed in those days.

CRAWFORD: Who was your mate that you went with in the boat?

LALAS: Ron Tindle, but he's dead just now.

CRAWFORD: Ok. Otago Harbour, Paterson Inlet, Ackers Point, some of the smaller islands in Foveaux Strait off Stewart Island. What were your other study locations?

LALAS: Marlborough Sound, based at French Pass and the Chathams.

CRAWFORD: in terms of time spent in the field in each of these cases, it was a mix of terrestrial- and aquatic-based observations?

LALAS: Marlborough Sound and Chatham Islands were observations from land.

CRAWFORD: And for Otago Harbour and Stewart Island, it was a mix of observation from land and water?


CRAWFORD: Give me a sense of how many years your field program ran?

LALAS: It was six years to do the PhD, but I had to work and get some money. I guess the field work was split over three or four years.

CRAWFORD: Was it the case that you would have been to each of the four locations in each of the years?

LALAS: No. Chatham Island was a one off - it was a five-week trip which curiously was funded by a pharmaceutical company. They wanted a particular type of seaweed which was very rare, and offered a payment of $1 per kilogram, which wasn't a lot but at the time ...

CRAWFORD: You combined that harvesting work with getting over to Chatham Island?

LALAS: No. I knew a spot where we'd go in about an hour, and that paid for the whole Chatham Island trip. $500 paid for five weeks.

CRAWFORD: And that was for one year only?

LALAS: It was a one off. And Marlborough Sound work ... I don't remember how many times I went there, but it was two or three times - a couple of weeks at a time.

CRAWFORD: Perhaps once a year, on average?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: The same thing for Otago and Stewart Island?

LALAS: Stewart Island I don't actually remember. I probably went three or four times. And at Otago Harbour it was every day I wasn't somewhere else. So, it turned out that the ideal spot for me to be observing the birds behaving naturally was from the tea room at the Portobello Marine Lab. Similarly, at Stewart Island the best spot was at the pub at the hotel. I'd sit there with a pair of binoculars and they'd buy me a beer, because they felt sorry for me.

CRAWFORD: I think I have a general sense. For Marlborough Sound and Stewart Island, it would have been maybe two or three trips through the thesis. Fieldwork of approximately two or three weeks each time. Something like that? 

LALAS: Yeah. I'd say usually about two trips for each.

CRAWFORD: Your observations were specifically focusing on bird life, in association with the marine environment?

LALAS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: When did you finish the PhD?

LALAS: 1983 I submitted. It was back in the day when things were a lot slower. There wasn't the rush to get things done. And also there was a problem of too little information known, so I ended up probably spending half my time cutting up fish to get what the prey remains looked like, because it was totally unknown. I was doing diet from prey remains in the birds, but nobody knew what the prey remains were. So, I had to do that as well. 

CRAWFORD: That's a lot of natural history.

LALAS: Yeah. It isn't done these days, because that information is known before you start.

CRAWFORD: After the PhD, what was the next time and place that you were spending significant effort around New Zealand coastal waters?

LALAS: I was quite lucky, because when I finished, the Government of the time - which was the first Labour Government of any substance forever - they set up a work scheme where anybody was guaranteed a job in their field. So, I went right into a position working for Lands and Survey, which was a precursor to DOC. This was in 1983, and my job was to survey sea birds of the Otago coast.

CRAWFORD: 'Otago coast' - what did that mean, geographically?

LALAS: I concentrated on what now are DOC reserves, which were pretty much Lands and Survey government reserves. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly where would those reserves have been?

LALAS: Shag Point, that would have been the northern most one. Heyward Point, Taiaroa Head, Sandfly Bay, Sandymount. And here's where it got curious. I concentrated on two spots, Green Island and another ... unclassified Crown land, and as a result of my work they were made into major reserves. I thought that was quite significant. Then there was Nugget Point, and there's nothing in between - in terms of reserves.  I got to know Taeiri Mouth - sorry, there is a reserve there. I didn't go there often, because you can only walk there on occasion. Very low considerable tide. That turned out to be where the first Sea Lion was born on the coast. So, I ended up getting to know a couple of the locals, and went there quite regularly later. 

CRAWFORD: Before you go on, you talked about being able to walk over. The work that you were doing, this surveying, was it predominantly terrestrial? Or did you have access to a boat? 

LALAS: Purely terrestrial, because it was a bit of a dual thing. One was to learn what seabirds are in the Government reserves, and the other was to know what are the hotspots. What are the important places for seabirds? 

CRAWFORD: But in terms of accessing the islands, you would have had to be shuttled out there by boat?

LALAS: Yes. For Green Island, [Keith Simmond] would take me out there on his Lobster pot trips.

CRAWFORD: While he was fishing, he would shuttle you over?

LALAS: Yeah. He would drop me off, and pick me up a couple of days later. For the other island I went to fairly regularly - [Wharekakahu] - I had an inflatable boat. In those days, I had good lungs. You walk from the end of the road down to the nearest beach, roll this thing out, blow it up, hop in it, and go out. Because it was only a couple hundred meters offshore.

CRAWFORD: A couple of hundred meters off the end of the Otago Peninsula. What time of year were you doing these surveys?

LALAS: I was employed for 18 months, two years, something like that. I was going to all of them regularly throughout the year, summer and winter. Not so much in winter. I got more into Yellow-Eyed Penguins, because they’re present year-round - whereas most of the other species disappear if they're not breeding.  

CRAWFORD: Ok. All of this work was being done on the coastline, with some occasional transit overland. To get to the island, it was throughout the year, and it ran for approximately 18 months. Refresh my memory, what year was that?

LALAS: 1983-85.

CRAWFORD: What was the next installment of your history with marine environments in New Zealand?

LALAS: I got involved with another project. It was back in the days where you didn't apply for jobs - people asked you if you wanted to be employed. The start of the New Zealand observer program, so I went out on large fishing boats. In those days, it was just foreign ones. You monitored what they were doing.

CRAWFORD: This was for the Ministry of Fisheries? Or what would become Ministry of Primary Industries?

LALAS: I can't think of exactly who it was it those days, but yes it would have been something like the Ministry of Fisheries.

CRAWFORD: That was observing fishing vessels offshore. How far offshore? What was the closest you got to the coastline?

LALAS: Twelve nautical miles - that was the limit, because they were all too big to fish within the twelve nautical miles.

CRAWFORD: Was that throughout the year?

LALAS: Yes, and the concentration in winter. I suppose I did it for three or four years. Then I had a bit of a gap where I sort of left because of some other things. So, then I was just a guide out at the Albatross Conservatory for probably a couple of years. And then I took up the fishery observer job again, but working for a fishing company. 

CRAWFORD: So, there were two installments of that job then?


CRAWFORD: The first installment was for two or three years?

LALAS: Yeah. It was '86, and I left in '89. And it was summer, so that all but the last six months I ended up getting brought into the shore staff.

CRAWFORD: But it was three years, throughout the year, with a focus on the winter, offshore fishery. What region roughly? Was it only South Island? 

LALAS: Yes, nothing north. A little bit in Cook Strait, but not much of the strait is outside twelve nautical miles. Mainly west coast of the South Island.

CRAWFORD: West coast - Fiordland?

LALAS: No, further north. Hokitika Canyon, Greymouth to Hokitika.

CRAWFORD: Ok. If I heard you correctly, there was also a stint where you were working with the bird observatory on the Otago Peninsula?

LALAS: Yes, just as a guide there to make some money.

CRAWFORD: As a guide, but you were working along Taiaroa Head?

LALAS: What was happening was, for some key species of seabirds, I was maintaining monitoring. 

CRAWFORD: You were doing abundance monitoring?

LALAS: Yes. That would have been for a couple of species of Shags and Yellow-Eyed Penguins. Then I got involved from the early '80s up here at Moeraki - Kaitiki Point, I started getting seriously involved with conservation work ashore.

SCRAWFORD: What kind of conservation work?

LALAS: What you can see up there now if you go out, it was all bare paddocks. And three of us, where I was the minor party in that trio, we planted forests. Which is now quite impressive to go and look at 30 years after the day. We did things like maintain trapping to protect animals. 

CRAWFORD: Both terrestrial and aquatic work?

LALAS: No, just terrestrial. And that continues to today - where it’s picked up in recent years.

CRAWFORD: After working in association with the bird observatory, you went back to doing fisheries observations?

LALAS: Yes, working with a fishing company - Sanford out of Timaru. That was less variety, because they wanted people to monitor what the Korean joint venture vessels were doing. I never worked on Russian or Soviet vessels in those days. Otherwise It was Japanese and Korean vessels, but for Sanford it was just Korean vessels.

CRAWFORD: Still all offshore?

LALAS: Still all offshore. Same as before, the west coast of South Island mainly. And also the Auckland Islands during the squid fishery. In the early years, further south for Southern Blue Whiting as well. 

CRAWFORD: How long did that second fishery observer job run? How many years?

LALAS: Probably 6-7 years. I can't give you the exact time, but something like that. I certainly got more sea time heading it up, than I did working for the government. 

CRAWFORD:  Ok. Early 2000s now, what happened then?

LALAS: There's all this background monitoring going on in my spare time, from the late '70s onwards. Looking at the coastal monitoring, in particular special species with a focus on birds. Birds initially, and then Fur Seals and then Sea Lions. When I took notice of the Fur Seals, it was around '82. The first pups born in southern New Zealand.


LALAS: Where they'd been wiped out. What we know now, they were wiped out by Māori, and the early Sealers finished them off. Reading between the lines on the records, I think more men drowned than Seals were killed, because essentially the Māori subsistence hunting had wiped them out. So, that was the start of their comeback.

CRAWFORD: 1982 was the first recorded pupping? For what region?

LALAS: Southern New Zealand mainland.

CRAWFORD: Including Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island?

LALAS: I don't know. There's information on the start of breeding there at some places, but to my understanding - sorry, my memory - if it’s important we can find out, but they were definitely breeding in Foveaux Strait. So, we're talking strictly on the mainland. They definitely weren't further north. And my studies went down ... the furthest place south I went was Waipapa Point, which is the southern-most tip of South Island. 

CRAWFORD: The important thing for me to focus on is the idea that it was early 1980s when the first recorded instance of Seal pupping occurred along the southeast coast of the South Island?

LALAS: And when we say southeast, it’s the whole of the east coast of the South Island. First it was here, later it was Banks Peninsula, later it was Marlborough Sound. 

CRAWFORD: To the extent that you know about Seal pupping, what observations have there been from Kaka Point south?

LALAS: They started at the Nuggets later. For those early years, I was senior author for a paper on Otago Peninsula and a paper for further south. They started at Cape Saunders, which was the first spot. And then they appeared at my nemesis - Sandymount. There's a sea cave at Sandymount that's tried to kill me several times. And then I think it was the Nuggets. They spread out in both directions. 

CRAWFORD: The Nuggets puppings would have been mid-80s, late 80s?

LALAS: Sorry, I don't remember. The paper was written the mid-90s, so it was before then.

CRAWFORD: What about down through the Catlins?

LALAS: Yes, they were slowly spreading down - north to south.

CRAWFORD: We'll come back to this. We're actually dipping into part two of the interview. We're still trying to map out your experience. You were doing these surveys. We got through the second round of you being a fisheries observer. And then I think you started to talk about doing these Seal assessments in the background, through the entire period?

LALAS: Publications started in the mid-90s, because that’s when I got a computer. The next job was working for a rather weird American, what’s it called - a 'tertiary organization' called School for International Training. They brought students, groups of either about a dozen or two dozen, and they would come over here for the equivalent of half year, and it would get credited to their university.

CRAWFORD: Was this an out-of-doors experience program?

LALAS: It was out-of-doors - we called it 'We're keeping rich Americans amused.' Conservation was the topic, but the theme I made was using ecotourism for conservation purposes. Literally, we would allocate a week in Kaikoura and go Whale watching, swimming with the Dolphins. The reason we allocated a week is the weather there is so unpredictable that those were the only two things that we could do. I was the accompanying lecturer. This was a five-week road trip.

CRAWFORD: How many of those trips would you do in a year?

LALAS: Two. And I did it for about six years. It would have brought us up to 2006. 

CRAWFORD: Both trips in the summer?

LALAS: No, they were six months apart. One summer, one winter. At the end of them, the students had to do a five-week undergraduate project. I would supervise some, but I would have to organize supervisors for some, university people for others, and a lot of those were marine-based. A couple with small boat work. 

CRAWFORD: Would these projects have been focused on the Otago Peninsula? In the harbour, or spread out?

LALAS: Spread out. I would very regularly have students working up north at Kaitiki Point where I was basing my conservation work. I remember we had maybe four projects on mussels in Marlborough Sound. It was at the turn of the century or so. I was contracted as a consultant for applications for mussel farms in Marlborough Sound - for the seabird component.

CRAWFORD: You would have spent time on or around the water for periods?

LALAS: Very little. I think all out maybe a week. I got familiar with Marlborough Sound from zipping around.

CRAWFORD: What was the next significant installment of coastal New Zealand experience - either from shore or on the water?

LALAS: That moves us up to mid-2000s, and then I started on this seismic exploration project, which was mainly offshore.

CRAWFORD: Offshore, as in continental shelf offshore? 100+ km offshore?

LALAS: Yeah. I got to see the Fur Seals on their feeding grounds. Nicely it was in Australia. I have a few weeks out of Raglan, straight west from Hamilton. It's meant to be New Zealand's best surfing beach. We had to straddle it in a small boat, so we went surfing - and it was quite exciting. 

CRAWFORD: When did the seismic activity project wrap up?

LALAS: Theoretically it’s still going, but I think it’s done. 

CRAWFORD: Effectively done by 2010?

LALAS: No. Done last year.

CRAWFORD: So, it continued on for several years?

LALAS: Yeah. I did have an inshore survey, and the reason I was brought in was that it was beside a marine reserve beside New Plymouth. That brought us in to conflict because people had decided it was an important area for Maui's Dolphin, even though none had been seen there before. We were expected to visually be able to tell the difference between Hector's Dolphin and Maui's Dolphin.  But the only way you can tell the difference is through blood tests - you cannot visually tell.

CRAWFORD: Within the past five years, other than work you've done with offshore seismic surveys and a couple of contracts here and there, is there anything else in this region, the Otago Peninsula region or elsewhere, that you've spent a significant amount of time near the shoreline - if not on the water?

LALAS: Yeah. I had two weeks down at the bottom end of Stewart Island within the last three years.

CRAWFORD: Where specifically?

LALAS: Port Pegasus.

CRAWFORD: What were you doing in Port Pegasus?

LALAS: Diet of Sea Lions. We had perfect weather for the whole time we were there. Actually getting low on fresh water, which doesn't happen very often. Boat-based work - a university offshore boat.

CRAWFORD: Was it a research program?

LALAS: Yes, not mine though. I would tag along with other people, doing other projects. We had exclusive use of small boats. 

CRAWFORD: So, Port Pegasus for 2-3 weeks a year?

LALAS: Yeah. I think two trips to Port Pegasus, and I've done trips to the Snares and Auckland Islands - all of them in the past few years. Piggy backing on other people's trips, and paying big money to go.

CRAWFORD: Research trips or ecotourism?

LALAS: Research trips - based on Sea Lion diets, but supplemented by some bird work as well.

CRAWFORD: And does that pretty much bring us up to date, with regard to your experience around New Zealand coastal waters?


Copyright © 2017 Chris Lalas and Steve Crawford