International embarrassment for NZ likely over National’s failure to protect Maui dolphin

New Zealanders who care about Maui dolphin should prepare to feel embarrassed: the Government is about to be put to shame on the international stage for its lack of action to protect Maui’s dolphin. The International Whaling Commissions’ 66th Biennial Commission Meeting is happening in Slovenia from October 24th to 28th, and Maui’s dolphins will be discussed.

On Monday evening (New Zealand time), Caterina Fortuna, the chair of the Scientific Committee, is scheduled to get up in front of representatives from around the world, and tell them (amongst other things) how well our Government is protecting Maui’s dolphins. We will feel embarrassed because she will say that the Scientific Committee has grave concerns.

The Scientific Committee wrote a report earlier this year that said (on page 79), “the Committee concludes, as it has repeatedly in the past, that existing management measures in relation to bycatch mitigation fall short of what has been recommended previously and expresses continued grave concern over the status of this small, severely depleted subspecies. The human-caused death of even on individual will increase the extinction risk.”

The IWC has repeatedly recommended banning gillnets and trawling on the west coast of the North Island from Maunganui Bluff to Whanganui, out to 20 nautical miles offshore (including harbours), but the National Government refuses to implement this recommendation.

Sadly, not only does the National Government allow dolphin-killing fishing methods to be used in Maui’s dolphin habitat, it puts puts very few resources into monitoring the effects of this fishing. The Ministry for Primary Industries only puts observers on a tiny number of the boats that fish in Maui’s dolphin habitat, and this leads to the under-reporting of dolphin deaths.

In fact, the IWC’s Scientific Committee noted that observer coverage over the entire range of Maui dolphins was 12.7% for the set net fishery and 14.6% of the trawl fishery. This is shocking, given that the Government knows that fishers are very unlikely to report when they catch a dolphin. Between the years 2000 and 2012 there were eight reported fishing-related Maui’s dolphins deaths. And yet, the Government’s own risk assessment in 2012 estimated that almost 5 Maui’s dolphins per year were dying in fishing nets.

The situation of under-reporting of dolphin by-catch is very similar to the under-reporting of fish by-catch. The Government knows it is an issue, and is doing nothing about it.

The Government should implement the recommendations of the International Whaling Commission and stop trawling and set net fishing throughout the Maui’s dolphin habitat. However, if the Government insists on allowing dolphin killing fishing practices within Maui’s dolphin habitat, at the very least the Government should put observers on each and every boat.

Last week, National Ministers Maggie Barry and Nathan Guy claimed that the preliminary results of a recent survey were “encouraging” news for Maui dolphin. See the DOC website for the preliminary information from the survey.

The Ministers’ media release understates the significant uncertainty in the survey results, something which the researchers themselves made clear.  As the New-Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust says, “when you get down to a population of fewer than 100 individuals it becomes very difficult to get an accurate or precise estimate of population size.” So while Ministers were crowing, it is unclear whether the Maui population is increasing, decreasing, or stable. But with the IWC likely to criticise Government over its failure to protect Maui dolphins where they live, we have Ministers grasping at anything that might help create a different story.