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What’s up with all these New Zealand dolphin deaths?

Gemma McGrath is WDC's campaigner in New Zealand and in this blog she explores the lessons we need to take from the recent spate of Hector's and Māui dolphin deaths in fishing nets and why the government's response is utterly lacking.

A group of New Zealand dolphins leaping

With all the recent Hector’s dolphin deaths in trawl nets, an alarming seven this New Zealand summer, trawling is certainly a serious threat to these dolphins – despite the fishing industry saying otherwise. Previously we haven’t had much data on just how many New Zealand dolphins are being caught in trawl nets, due to such low observer coverage. We have good estimates for set net deaths, they are about 150 per year. It is thought that deaths from trawling could be at a similar level, especially with all the recent deaths.

It should be noted that these deaths were voluntarily reported by fishermen, which they are required to do by law, but most bycatch goes unreported, there is no incentive for fishermen to report, so it’s usually not. Although it’s sacrilege that these precious dolphins died in trawl nets, I’d like to thank these fishermen for doing the right thing and reporting them. They risked the ridicule of their peers, they decided to break consensus of keeping these things undercover and spoke out. I’d like to thank the set net fishermen who started this reporting off, when this time last year, five Hector’s dolphins were caught in one single net. He started something. He made it more ok for others to do the same.

I can imagine how awful these fishermen felt, bringing up these beautiful dolphins lifeless. Such a dread, a guilt, a gutting sinking feeling. See these fishermen actually spend a lot of time with these dolphins, like guardians the dolphins accompany their boats, most days. They see these dolphins more than I do, more than scientists. It’s safe to say, some have a special relationship, albeit a risky one. All these fishermen speaking out, to me, it’s a sign that they care about the future of these dolphins and their fisheries. It’s a cry for help, a statement that the system is broken. The Quota Management System (QMS) is not working, so many fish are being wasted and dumped, so many protected species are getting caught by set netting and trawling, they catch everything in their path: Hector’s dolphins, Māui dolphins, bottlenose, dusky and commons, orcas, whales, sea lions, seals, blue penguins, yellow-eyed penguins, albatrosses, titi, all other seabirds, black coral, sharks and turtles.

A New Zealand dolphin trapped in a net

Yet Seafood New Zealand is so blue in the face, still touting the idea that the industry is sustainable and fighting very hard to keep cameras off boats. With cameras, it is said the industry would be shut down overnight because the true scale of bycatch of protected species would be revealed. Isn’t it ironic that the previous National government had it all in place for cameras on NZ fishing boats to become compulsory. The National Party has a shocking reputation for caring for the environment, but this was certainly a step in the right direction. New Zealand currently has a coalition government, it was supposed to be a stellar force to be reckoned with, going on their published election policies: Labour, Greens and a real spanner in the works – NZ First.

In a last-minute reshuffle, Shane Jones MP was brought in, who we know has received at least $10k towards his election campaign from the fishing industry, who we know has received at least $10k towards his election campaign from the fishing industry.

They were voted in to independently review the QMS, yet it is being done internally.

I have a theory. All these recent multiple dolphin deaths in nets happened around the same area – Banks Peninsula. This is one of the only areas in all of New Zealand where dolphin numbers are slowly increasing, due to the higher level of protection there. Yet, there is still so much overlap of dolphin habitat with active set nets and trawling. This is no surprise as, if the dolphins are increasing, and there is clear overlap with net fishing, dolphins are going to be caught. Dolphins don’t do fences, they take no notice of the four nautical miles set net limits on the map. They don’t however venture far past the 100m depth contour. This is why net fishing needs to be banned out to this limit, all around the NZ coastline. When dolphins are more numerous, they get caught more. And once these dolphins were the most commonly seen dolphin close to the shore throughout NZ, before set nets and trawling became common practice. These recent deaths remind me just how many dolphins in the past died because of these methods. So many local dolphin hapū (sub-populations) are critically endangered because of fishing. The only way they are going to recover is if these methods are banned, once and for all - to ban set nets and trawling in NZ dolphin habitat and fund the transition of the fishing industry to safer, more selective methods.

Instead, we are involved in a lengthy process of consultation the Threat Management Plan (TMP), of which I am an active stakeholder. There are certainly issues with the process, especially scientific.

The Independent Expert Panel looked over the modelling, inputs etc; the panel ripped some things to shreds and said they risked their scientific credibility if they went through with some of their conclusions and how they got there. Was everything the Expert Panel recommended taken on board? It appears it is just a box to be ticked, with some minor changes.

Hopefully, these recent dolphin deaths will not be in vain, but instead, shake them in the right direction.

I hope our shining star Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her colleagues Eugenie Sage (Minister of Conservation) and Stuart Nash (Minister of Fisheries) decide to be on the right side of history on this decision. Will they side with most New Zealanders (>80%), and the world for protection of these precious native dolphins or will they cave in again to one of the biggest bullies around – the big players of the NZ fishing industry. I urge them all with my heart to let the dolphins thrive – and our fisheries will thrive too.

About Julia Pix

Communications manager - Public Engagement

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