Conservation Minister Maggie Barry was at the United Nations Oceans Conference in New York last week, trying to convince the world that the New Zealand Government is doing a good job at protecting our marine environment. Yet last week after meeting in Slovenia, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) published a report in which it reiterated that the NZ Government isn’t doing enough to protect our critically endangered Māui dolphin.
The 120 member IWC Scientific Committee said:
“The Committee notes that no new management action regarding the Māui dolphin has been enacted since 2013. It therefore 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 one individual would increase the extinction risk”.
The government’s progress report to the IWC Scientific Committee included a new population estimate (63 adult Māui dolphin, up from 55) and said in the last 12 months “there were no observer or fisherman-reported captures in commercial or recreational fisheries”.
But data presented to the IWC Scientific Committee by scientists from New Zealand and the USA show that the Māui dolphin population is declining and that the “reported” dolphin catches mentioned in the New Zealand government report are just the tip of the iceberg. This is because only 2% of vessels fishing in Māui dolphin habitat carry government observers, and fishers generally voluntarily report only about 1% of the dolphin deaths.
Two fishing companies, Sanford and Moana have worked with the World Wildlife Fund to end set netting north of New Plymouth and will phase out trawling from 2022. This just isn’t enough.
It falls well short of the IWC recommendation to ban gillnet and trawl fisheries from Maunganui Bluff in the north to Whanganui in the south, offshore to 20 nautical miles, including harbours. Currently, less than 20% of Māui dolphin habitat is protected, with gillnets and trawling banned in only 5% of their range.
The IWC expressed “continued grave concern” about the conservation of Māui dolphin and stated that “The human-caused death of even one individual would increase the extinction risk”.
Once a population drops below 100 individuals, precautionary conservation action is critical. The IWC re-iterated that the top priority is “immediate management actions to eliminate bycatch of Māui dolphins including closures of any fisheries within the range of Māui dolphins that are known to pose a risk of bycatch to dolphins (i.e. set net and trawl fisheries)”. The IWC has made it clear that ‘more research’ is not a substitute for dolphin protection and that immediate action is needed to protect Māui dolphins.
Among the reasons why the IWC is so concerned about the risk of extinction for Māui dolphin is that the baiji (Chinese river dolphin) went extinct between 1998 and 2006 and the vaquita (Mexican porpoise) declined from 60 to 30 individuals in the last 12 months. Scientists are now turning their attention to species like Māui and Hector’s dolphins, and Asian river dolphins, pointing out the urgent need to prevent these species from sliding further towards extinction.
The IWC Scientific sub-committee said it:
“reiterates its previous recommendation that highest priority should be assigned to immediate management actions to eliminate bycatch of Māui dolphins including closures of any fisheries within the range of Māui dolphins that are known to pose a risk of bycatch to dolphins (i.e. set net and trawl fisheries)” and “notes that the confirmed current range extends from Maunganui Bluff in the north to Whanganui in the south, offshore to 20 n. miles, and it includes harbours – within this defined area, fishing methods other than set nets and trawling should be used” (p 96).
If these comments sound familiar, it’s because the IWC has recommended these measures before, in fact, every year since 2012, and I have written about it before.
The sad state of affairs is that our Government is willing to go against the advice of world-leading scientists again and again. It continues to put our precious Māui’s dolphins at risk of extinction. New Zealanders and the world deserve better. If you love and want to protect our Māui’s dolphins, we need to change the Government.