Dolphin plan’s ‘misleading’ terms and ‘overstated’ costs

Are figures showing the financial impact of closing areas of sea to save Māui and Hector’s dolphins accurate? An economist who’s reviewed the calculations says they are over-estimated by 10 times.

When it comes to the Māui dolphin, numbers matter. There are around 63 left. Any death puts the sub species on the knife’s edge of survival.

Without drastic action, an article in April’s Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand predicts they’ll be extinct within 30 years. Although there are more Hector’s dolphins – around 15,000 – they too face an uncertain future.

What’s killing them is fishing and cat poo. Fishing nets trap them under the water. Unable to surface for air they suffocate and become commercial fishing collateral damage. Cat poo can lead to toxoplasmosis, a disease which can kill the dolphins.

Since a draft Threat Management Plan for Māui and Hector’s dolphins was released in June most of the debate has been focused on toxoplasmosis and the accuracy of the risk calculation. Some scientists immediately labelled the plan as containing flawed science. 'Shit fight over whether faeces threatens species' was the fleeting headline on RNZ’s website before being changed to the less profane 'scat spat'.

It’s not only scientists who are pointing out flaws in the plan.

An economist thinks there are other figures and calculations in the draft plan worth starting a spat over. In his view, the method used to calculate the economic impact is flawed and there are “major gaps” in the assessments.

The draft plan includes financial losses the fishing industry could incur from bans on set net and trawling in areas where there are dolphins. Market Economics' associate director Rodney Yeoman thinks they are overestimated by 10 times.

The peer review was commissioned by World Animal Protection and the results released a six-page memo peer reviewing the draft plan’s numbers.

“We have been diplomatic in the wording used in the memo. It is our view that the economic results presented by FNZ [Fisheries New Zealand] grossly overstate the costs, while ignoring that there are many other benefits.”

Numbers matter. To save the 63 Māui dolphins, the financial losses FNZ estimate over five years range from $20.9 million to $143.5 million depending on the area of fishery closed.

Yeoman strongly suggests Treasury review the figures. Along with overestimating the costs he thinks benefits have been underestimated in the plan.

It was this big! The overestimation

For just one year, stopping trawling in a 14,600 square km off the west coast of the North Island, the draft plan estimates a reduction of total economic value of $35.2m. This is based on the lost revenue of what the fish sells for, as well as value from processing and supply.

Yeoman’s estimation of the value of the fishery is $2.5m.

Why are the two estimations so wildly different?

For starters the draft plan assumes all fish currently caught by trawling or set net fishing will no longer be caught. There’s been no assessment of potential catch using alternative fishing methods.

“In our view, that appears to be an extreme position,” say the report.

Hector's dolphin. Photo: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith CC BY 2.0

Secondly, it’s the counting. Something might sell for $1000 but if you spent $800 catching it then it’s a stretch to say the impact on the business of banning you from catching it is $1000.

When estimating the benefits associated with commercial fishing, the resources used to catch the fish, such as fuel, labour and boat maintenance need to be subtracted. Statistics New Zealand data indicates only one fifth of the revenue from fishing can be considered a benefit to society. That means the $1000 in foregone catch value is around $200 in economic impact.

Finally, the total economic value shouldn’t just be based on revenue. Market Economics Director Douglas Fairgray explains:

“The total economic value is a method which takes into account all of the value of a resource. It's not just the money that it can generate, but it's wider things like how the community as a whole values, for example, environmental features, which you can't buy and sell, but which we place value on.”

He gives the example of polar bears. We might never see or experience a polar bear in our lives, but many people place value on their continued existence, and include the ‘bequest value’ in the hope they still exist for our great grandchildren.

“It's important that we have actions and policies which protect the range of values.”

The draft plan refers to socio-economic impacts and total economic impact. Market Economics' “diplomatically worded” peer review calls the use of these terms “misleading”.

“There is no economic assessment of anything other than commercial fishing. Accordingly, it is not a “social-economic” or “total economic value” assessment, rather it is limited to an assessment of commercial fishing.

The approach is also not consistent with how policy options should be assessed, according to the economist’s review.

“The catch revenue does not equate to economic benefits to society. This is clearly acknowledged by NZ Treasury as being an incorrect metric for assessing policy options.”

The review dryly notes 20 percent of the draft plan focuses on financial impact to fishers.

“In our view, this shows an imbalance toward the “negative” impacts of lost fishing revenues.”

Hector's dolphin caught in a net. Photo: DoC

It’s complicated, really complicated

The draft plan is seeking public input. One of the criticisms levelled at the plan is its complexity.

There are 14 options alone for fishing methods and areas. Another eight options are given for other threats, giving a total of 22 options in the document.

World Animal Protection’s Christine Rose said what should be straightforward has been made complicated by the range of options put forward.

“The solution is simple, tackle the industry and get the nets out of the dolphin habitat now, while the dolphins still have a chance.”

Her voice is joined by other groups. Greenpeace describe the draft plan as a pathway to extinction. Forest & Bird have a zero bycatch petition which calls for the end of harmful fishing activities in dolphin habitat. The International Whaling Commission has stood by a recommendation to close fisheries in the Māui dolphin range where bycatch is a risk.

Feedback is open until 5pm on 4 August. A final document is expected in October.

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