A New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka has drowned in a squid fishing trawl net just seven weeks after the start of the squid fishing season. This shows the need for much stronger measures to protect endangered sea lions from being killed in fishing nets.
The New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka, which was once found around the entire New Zealand coast, is now probably the rarest sea lion in the world. In 2015, scientists estimated that they numbered only 11,800, and their numbers are falling.
Otago University professor Dr Bruce Robertson has been studying New Zealand sea lions for decades and is very concerned about their chances of survival. In 2016 the Government proposed a sea lion protection plan, called the draft Threat Management Plan. Dr Robertson’s submission on the plan includes a lengthy critique but that I will summarise.
First, Dr Robertson points out that the Government’s draft Threat Management Plan does not propose any direct actions to reduce the major threats to sea lions over the next 5 years.
“Wait, what?” you might think…“Then what does it do?”
The answer is: not much.
No Direct Action
All the plan does is propose further monitoring, research and talking about threats. Dr Robertson writes:
[A] major concern with the draft Threat Management Plan (TMP) is that it does not propose any direct actions that can be implemented now to mitigate the major threats to sea lions over the next five years. How the Threat Management Plan proposes to reverse the decline of sea lion population without direction is unclear. Indeed, two of the four National Programme goals involve forming groups to talk further about sea lions, while another goal involves doing more research on disease, and the last goal involves continuing the existing monitoring of sea lion population.
The expectation of turning around the declining trend in sea lions without taking any form of direct action is absurd.
Not only is there no direct actions in the sea lion TMP, there is also no budget to fund any of the myriad of research projects proposed in the process.
Disguises the impact of commercial fishing
Dr Robertson also has concerns that the Government has glossed over the detrimental impacts of commercial fishing on the sea lion population. When fishers use set-nets or trawling gear to catch squid or fish, endangered sea lions can end up getting caught in the nets and thus get injured or die, as has just happened once again.
He says, “I am very concerned that commercial fishing impacts are side-lined in the draft TMP. This is at odds with direct effects of commercial fishing (set-net and trawl fishing) being identified [by a panel of experts] as the number one and number two risk to sea lions in the Otago Coast subpopulation and Auckland Islands subpopulations respectively.”
The Government hasn’t proposed any new restrictions on fishers in the draft Threat Management Plan presumably because, as the Government claims, the restrictions alone can’t reverse population decline. But that is some strange logic.
What should be done instead
Instead of doing nothing, they should be doing more! Fishing restrictions can help, and coupled with other solutions could actually reverse population decline. But instead of increasing fishing restrictions, the Government is letting the industry kill up to 68 sea lions every year, and only proposing more monitoring, research and talk.
Dr Robertson has ideas for how to save sea lions while still allowing commercial fishers to catch squid. He proposes closing the north-west area of the squid fishing area called, SQU6T, near the Auckland Islands, but allowing the impacted squid fishers to move their fishing operations to near the Snares Shelf in and area called SQU1. Or he proposes allowing the squid fishers to catch squid near the Auckland Islands if they switch from using sea lion killing trawl nets and start using a fishing method called jigging.
This seems entirely reasonable. After all, we don’t allow hunters to accidentally kill kakapo or great spotted kiwi. We shouldn’t allow the fishing industry to kill any of our critically endangered New Zealand sea lion/rāpoka.