environment

No Christmas present for Māui dolphins

The contentious māui and hector’s dolphin threat management plan has run into troubled water again with the Government’s planned announcement delayed for months

Conservationists were expecting good news before Christmas with an announcement due on a decision on how to protect threatened dolphins. Now a decision is due in the “coming months”.

The reason given for the delay in an update to stakeholders is the number of submissions made to the plan: 

“Over 13,000 submissions were received and a petition with over 76,000 signatures presented to Parliament … It is important to get the decision right.  With this in mind, ministers are taking more time to carefully consider the volume of feedback they have received and the various options available.”

The plan, created by the Department of Conservation and Fisheries New Zealand contains four different options that offer differing levels of protection to the threatened dolphins, some of which will affect the livelihood of fishers. 

Disappointment is widespread throughout the conservation community. 

Forest & Bird’s strategic advisor Geoff Keey said there’s frustration with the delay. 

“The more this gets pushed out, the longer these decisions are taking, the harder it gets to make them and the more we have to wait. We were hoping for that Christmas present for māui dolphins.”

With only 63 māui remaining, he said the chance of one getting entangled during a fishing season was low, but the consequences if it happened were high.

World Animal Protection’s campaign advisor Christine Rose has similar concerns. 

“While we respect the intent of taking more time to consider the many submissions made, the absence of a decision exposes dolphins to continued risk of entanglement. This is an abrogation of responsibility to the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphins, found only here in New Zealand.”

Sea Shepherd’s New Zealand managing director Michael Lowry said he was alarmed by the level of fishing he was seeing take place in the dolphins’ habitat.

“The industry appears to be engaged in a last-ditch fishing bonanza before the law changes.”

Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s marine biologist Philippa Brakes hopes the delay is for good reason.

“I guess it’s an indication there are ongoing negotiations in Cabinet.”

Despite being disappointed at the delay, she hopes it will mean a better outcome for the dolphins. She hopes areas are closed to fishing, and if necessary some fishers receive a payout.

“All the international bodies are looking at what we are doing under the microscope. If we don’t make a good decision now, it’s not going to play out well for New Zealand.”

The plan has been mired in controversy with questions raised over the scientific modelling of deaths caused by cats, as well as the economic modelling. A bid to get seafood caught in the māui dolphins' habitat banned by the United States was averted after a flurry of calls from officials. If it went ahead, the ban would be $2 million in annual exports. This could rise to $200m per year if a traceability system was not set up to certify fish caught outside of the dolphin habitat.

Requests for the results of a review into the economic modelling in the plan have been turned down.

Timeline:

February 6: Sea Shepherd petitions US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ban snapper and seafood caught in the area.

May 6: Briefing regarding the Sea Shepherd petition sent to Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

June 7: Government announces all commercial fishing boats at risk of encountering māui dolphins would be required to have on-board cameras

June 17: A proposed Threat Management Plan is released.

June 18: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejects Sea Shepherd’s petition for a ban.

June 18: Scientists question the proposal's claim cat faeces pose a bigger threat to dolphins than commercial fishing.

July 9: Questions raised over the calculation of economic impact of set-net and trawl bans in dolphin habitat.

August 19: Submissions to the threat management plan close.

August 20: Fishing interests Sanford and Moana New Zealand, with WWF-New Zealand, propose an “option five”. This suggests an observation and move-on approach if dolphins are seen.

September: Full page advertisements are published in the Dominion Post by Seafood NZ. Communications staff call these justified.

November 1: Deadline for boats fishing in Māui habitat to have on-board cameras. Fourteen of 20 boats intending to fish in the area had cameras.

November 11: The Department of Conservation releases information from acoustic monitoring which suggests dolphins are regularly present in the coastal waters of Tongaporutu, Taranaki, and visit as far south as Tapuae. It said it was determining whether further management options were needed as part of the review of the Hector’s and Māui dolphin Threat Management Plan.

Dec 19: Government announces delay to a decision on plan. No new deadline is given.

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