sea lion rapoka

Restrictions on squid fishing needed to help New Zealand’s sea lions

Like the kakapo, New Zealand sea lions/rāpoka are classified as critically endangered. There are only an estimated 11,800 of them left on the planet. Their numbers are falling each year.  Yet the fishing industry is able to kill up to 68 New Zealand sea lions/rāpoka each year in one squid fisheries area alone before the Ministry of Primary Industries has to think about doing anything to restrict fishing.

Thank goodness for university scientists who speak their mind. Reading Associate Professor Bruce Robertson’s take on the Government’s flimsy plan to save sea lions is like a bracing dive into deep water.

Dr Bruce Robertson clearly identifies the major threat to the world’s rarest sea lion – trawl fishing for squid around the sea lions’ major breeding site in the Auckland Islands – and the actions needed to stop sea lions/rāpoka being made extinct, all backed up by detailed analysis and research.

In contrast, reading the draft threat management plan by DoC and the Ministry of Primary Industies (MPI) is like eating jelly –insubstantial and wobbly. It’s a thin, vacuous document with little substantive analysis. Worse still, it proposes no direct action to help increase the New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka population.

The draft plan downplays the effects of commercial fishing on sea lions/rāpoka.  Instead MPI and DoC propose doing more research into the Klebsiella disease and what is killing sea lion pups on the Auckland Islands.

Sea Lion Pup
Sea lion pup

Dr Robertson says this approach is “misguided” because it fails to tackle the mutiple factors affecting sea lions and the need to save both female sea lions and their pups.  That requires the plan and MPI to restrict fishing.

Research has identified commercial trawl fishing (largely for squid) as the major cause of death for female sea lions at the Auckland Islands.  Squid fishing is concentrated to the north-west and south-east of the islands, where sea lions also feed.  Fishing boats can fish for squid elsewhere in the EEZ.  Hungry nursing sea lions are restricted to the swimming distance from their dependent pups back on land.

If the area north-west of the Auckland Islands was closed to fishing and the industry was also required to use jigs instead of trawl nets to catch squid (as is done in other southern ocean squid fisheries off southern Australia, South Africa and around the Falkland Islands) fewer sea lions would be caught and killed.

Dr Robertson estimates that saving 34 females each year from death in squid trawl nets would stablise the Auckland Island sea lion population and may even help it increase over the next five years.

There are no proposals in the Draft Threat Management Plan to either close crucial sea lion foraging areas to trawl fishing; and/or require the industry to use jigging instead of trawling to catch squid around the Auckland Islands because of industry opposition.

This outrageous “Fishing Related Mortality Limit” has been set because MPI’s modelling assumes that Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs) fitted to trawl nets allow 82% of sea lions caught in the nets to escape unharmed and that the sea lion population can cope with this level of fishing bykill.

Yet as Dr Roberston notes, there is considerable uncertainty amongst experts about the efficicacy of SLEDs and the extent to which sea lions falling from the nets are killed and/or injured in the process.

Sign our open letter to tell the Minister we need a better plan for our sea lions/rāpoka

sea lion link

Primary Industries Minister, Nathan Guy and Conservation Minister, Maggie Barry need to read and take note of submissions such as Dr Bruce Robertson’s and direct their departments to rewrite the Threat Management Plan to prioritise the survival and health of New Zealand sea lions over the commercial interests of the fishing industry. That means restricting fishing around the Auckland Islands.  There are plenty more places where the industry can catch squid but the Auckland Islands are the main breeding area for endangered sea lions.

Further reading