Sailing: Conservationist, harbourmaster, iwi respond to Sir Russell Coutts' accusations over SailGP fiasco

Sir Russell Coutts has launched an extraordinary attack against Canterbury authorities - including the city council, the Department of Conservation and local iwi - whose influence on decisionmaking he calls "astonishing".

His accusations come after SailGP racing was cancelled for an entire day, because of dolphins.

More than 10,000 fans returned to Lyttelton on Sunday, but Sir Russell is not a fan of those who run the harbour.

"It's another example of New Zealand handcuffed by unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and red tape," he said.

Sir Russell Coutts and SailGP fans await a start to racing.
Sir Russell Coutts and SailGP fans await a start to racing. Photo credit: Getty Images

Thousands of fans were disappointed at the cancelled racing, but no-one was more disappointed than the former America's Cup sailor and SailGP chief executive.

"I find it astonishing the amount of influence the iwi have over the authorities here in NZ," said Coutss, 62. "SailGP has had this extreme marine mammal management plan forced upon us in Lyttelton by the Department of Conservation, ECan and Ngati Wheke. 

"In particular, Guy Harris, the harbourmaster, has been extremely restrictive in prohibiting practice for our international teams."

The Harbourmaster's office has told Newshub Harris has made all the right calls, ensuring the safety of everyone on the water.

Coutts says Hector's dolphins are not endangered, and they are extremely intelligent and aware of boats around them.

"Our people and our athletes care deeply about marine conservation. We've never had an incident in 35 events."

He's also taking aim at what he calls the "so-called" dolphin experts - there are 11, which he says cost $600 a day in a programme costing $78,000.

Sir Russell says SailGP alone spends $5.5 million in the NZ economy, let alone the other money the event draws in.

Hector's dolphins' official status is "threatened - nationally vulnerable" and they are a protected species under NZ law.

"SailGP has chosen to hold its event in a marine mammal sanctuary that was established for the protection of Hector’s dolphins," said the Department of Conservation operations deputy-director Henry Weston.

Black Foils celebrate their SailGP victory at Lyttelton.
Black Foils celebrate their SailGP victory at Lyttelton. Photo credit: Getty Images

"This decision to hold the event there was made in the full knowledge that protection of the dolphins from the impact of boats will be paramount."

Ngati Wheke and ChristchurchNZ have issued a joint statement, essentially echoing the Department of Conservation. They too were disappointed that sailing didn't go ahead, but the dolphins are protected and endangered, and SailGP knew this when it chose to come to Lyttelton.

They also say the marine mammal management plan in place for the event was signed off by everybody, including SailGP.

Thankfully for everyone, racing went ahead on Sunday and no dolphins were harmed when New Zealand secured the win, but there are other Sail GP battles still at play.

Live coverage of the ITM New Zealand Sail Grand Prix 2024 will be hosted on Three & ThreeNow