A 24-year-old man has been convicted and fined at a court in Auckland today after driving his boat at a flock of protected birds.

Matt Jurlina appeared at North Shore District Court this afternoon. He had pleaded guilty to a charge of hunting or killing absolutely protected marine wildlife in relation to a September 2022 incident in the Hauraki Gulf near Simpson Rock.

Video of the incident was played in court. In the footage, one of Jurlina’s hands steers the boat while he films on his phone with the other hand. Small, blue-grey fairy prion (tītī wainui) seabirds can be seen on the water before taking to the sky around the boat.

The footage, just a few seconds long, does not show the vessel turning. People can be heard yelling and laughing.

Jurlina wore a white collared shirt in court and stood watching the clip with his hands clasped in front of him as it played.

Fairy prion are protected under the Wildlife Act 1953; the same act which saw the Department of Conservation (DOC) bring charges against Jurlina. The birds only breed on offshore islands, not on the mainland, though they feed on the ocean’s surface and by taking short dives under the water.

A member of the public flagged Jurlina’s offending with DOC after seeing the video. It was posted to Jurlina’s own Instagram page and was captioned: “We f*****g love birds” with laughing emojis.

The boat was being driven at “high speed”, Judge Kathryn Maxwell noted, before it reached the birds on “the calm ocean surface”.

“The boat made no attempt to slow or deviate its course,” she ruled, noting the laughter.

Jurlina was fined $2500 and saw costs of $564 imposed.

The prosecution and the defence

Jurlina admitted he was owner and skipper of the powerboat, and claimed he was recording when he “suddenly” noticed the flock of birds. The judge told the courtroom he later said: “I’d rather a few birds get hurt than a few people.”

Jurlina’s lawyer Mireama Houra built on this argument, telling the court that Jurlina had been unable to safely stop or steer out of the way.

“He was trying to look after his crew.”

The birds were difficult to see against the water’s surface and it all happened very quickly, the defence argued.

“As skipper of the boat, it’s my duty to keep the people on board safe,” Jurlina said in an affidavit. He initially “thought it was a little bit funny”, he conceded, but he said he believed all of the birds got out of the way and were unharmed.

“I didn’t view what I had done as serious…”

Houra said Jurlina was “deeply remorseful” and argued a conviction would be disproportionate.

What’s more, a conviction would have a significant impact on his career, the defence argued.

Jurlina, whose social media shows he is a keen fisher, is pursuing professional rugby and plays for Croatia.

But the prosecution lawyer for DOC saw it differently, and an expert who reviewed the video has commented that the birds were likely to have been hit. The incident would have caused broken bones or even killed them outright, they said.

DOC argued Jurlina clearly drove in a straight direction through the large group, and also highlighted the laughter. DOC representatives listened to today’s sentencing from the public gallery.

The judgment

“Deterrence in cases like this is very important,” the judge noted, adding it can be very difficult to detect such incidents and they can occur in remote locations. She said the incident was “of a moderate seriousness”.

However, the judge accepted that Jurlina had completed voluntary community work, had pleaded guilty and had donated to charity.

This reduced the seriousness of the offending to something less than moderate, the judge said — although she added that she was “not entirely persuaded” of Jurlina’s remorse and “not entirely sure” she believes it was unintentional.

“What you say appears to be at odds with what is clearly visible in that Instagram post.”

She said the birds were also “clearly visible”, adding it appeared he’d prioritised filming over slowing down or deviating course.

In response to the defence’s claim that a conviction would impact Jurlina’s rugby career, prosecution lawyer Pip McNabb said it was “difficult” to see how the low-level conviction could have an affect.

She argued there was no evidence any nations would bar him from entry as a result and called that argument “speculative”. McNabb also pointed to a previous conviction that had evidently not impacted Jurlina’s career.

The judge shared this view, citing a lack of evidence.

“I’m not satisfied that there are any consequences which necessarily follow from a conviction of this nature,” she said, adding that, even if there were, she is not convinced they would be out of proportion.

“A fine is sufficient in the circumstances of this particular case.”

DOC responds

Dylan Swain is the Department of Conservation’s team lead for investigations.

He urged other Kiwis to report any possible infringements they see.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome in court today, it sends a very clear message,” he told 1News.

“We absolutely encourage Kiwis to be out on the water at the moment, especially with the temperatures that we have been having. We simply remind skippers to be in charge of their vessel, be aware of what is in front of them and be aware that protected wildlife can be anywhere — and if you do see it and if you think that you may have accidentally injured or killed protected wildlife, please contact DOC.

“If [you] do see something going on either out in the bush, on the water, or just by seeing it online… please contact DOC.”