Researchers from the University of Auckland will conduct a pilot study to establish whether radiation has entered the New Zealand ecosystem or food chain via the birds. The research aims to determine the degree to which the mutton bird population of the country was exposed to radiation from Fukushima.
Scientists plan on testing the feathers of the shearwaters for gamma rays since millions of these birds spend the winter off the coast of Japan. “Detection of gamma rays would tell us whether the birds spend sufficient time near Fukushima to accumulate cesium-134 from nuclear fission,” says Dr David Krofcheck of the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics.
He adds that the study is precautionary given that so far “there is no evidence to indicate that the birds have been vectors of radioactivity.” Dr Krofcheck notes that “obviously, what we are hoping to find in this latest research is that cesium levels in muttonbirds do not exceed exposure levels you would expect from natural sources.”
The sooty shearwater is of cultural and economic value to Maori, the country’s indigenous population, who use the birds for food, oil and feather down. Thus, researchers will need to consult with the local residents to undertake the study. “We will need to go through a number of approval processes and engage in consultation with local people before anything can happen as there are sensitive issues to consider before work can begin,” Dr Krofcheck said.
Experts agree that many species of wildlife and fisheries are endangered globally due to the large release of radioactivity into the ocean in the wake of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami that resulted in a meltdown of three nuclear reactors of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Moreover, radioactive water continues to leak into the Pacific Ocean to this day.