New Zealand’s government last week, “shamed” its nation during the IUCN World Conservation Congress, world’s largest and most important conservation summit. “A motion to stop the extinction of the world’s rarest dolphins and porpoises, including New Zealand’s Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins and Mexico’s Vaquitas, was passed with an overwhelming majority... 576 IUCN members, including governments and NGOs, voted for the motion, and only two opposed. The New Zealand government was one of them.” The motion passed was: M035 - Actions to avert the extinctions of rare dolphins: Maui’s dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, Vaquita porpoises and South Asian river and freshwater dependent dolphins and porpoises. Final count: Government votes: 117 yes, 2 no, 18 abstentions. NGO votes: 459 yes, 0 no, 8 abstentions.
The IUCN is not the first international congress to voice strong concerns to the New Zealand government about the urgency of preventing extinction of the Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphins. In July of this year, “The International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee urged New Zealand to take immediate steps to arrest the decline of its only native dolphins, pointing out that current protection measures are inadequate in terms of the area and the fishing methods they cover.” As with the IWC, motions passed by the IUCN are “gentlemen’s agreements”, without any power of enforcement. In other words, there are no actual laws or regulations that any country, including New Zealand, must abide by.
Such news would puzzle and shock most people across the world who have cherished New Zealand’s image as “green” also advertised as “100% Pure “. Why would New Zealand’s government risk losing such endearment by allowing endemic marine species to become extinct due to drowning in gillnets when there are viable solutions to avert extinction? One might ask “endemic marine species?”
Indeed, speaking in plural, the Yellow-eyed Penguin and New Zealand Sea Lion also share the same threat towards extinction by drowning due to entanglement and bycatch in commercial fishing nets. An “estimated 70 Yellow-eyed Penguins (Megadyptes antipodes, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) are known to die every year from entanglement in trawling nets or long-line fishing hooks used by commercial fishing vessels. ...But that number might be an underestimate.” “Their total population numbered nearly 7,000 birds just 30 years ago but today that total has fallen to closer to 4,000.” New Zealand “Sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) a Nationally Critical species ...have declined by over 50% since 1998. Recent government research suggests that fishing bycatch has played a key role in this decline.”
Despite a fisherman’s report which made the news “In February, the death of a Maui’s dolphin in a fishing net off the Taranaki coast in January was belatedly confirmed by the government.” now fishermen of the region have led into debate over whether or not any of the estimated last 55 Maui’s Dolphins are found in the Taranaki region with commentaries such as “Fishermen... - “no Maui’s to be found off Taranaki”
Again, referring to the plight of the New Zealand Sea Lion, “University of Otago research (22 May 2012) finds consistent under-reporting of sea-lion bycatch. Ministry of Primary Industries data on self-reporting of sea lion deaths by those involved in the arrow squid fishery paint a grim picture of more than a decade of non-compliance with New Zealand law designed to protect marine mammal populations, new University of Otago research suggests.”
As if that isn't bad enough: "The numbers of New Zealand sea lions have plummeted 50 percent over the last 12 years and research indicates the main cause for the decline is the sub-Antarctic squid fishery. Such a swift decline in a long-lived slow-breeding species is not sustainable. The current plan (by the New Zealand government), despite the research predicting the extinction of sea lions, removes any limit on sea lion by-kill.
Implications of confirmed sightings of Maui’s Dolphins, could lead to ban in the use of gill nets by trawlers in the known range of Maui’s around the Taranaki coastline. While clearly a concern to fishermen using this practice, one would not want to assume it could be questionable that fishermen may not be reporting “incidental takes” (dolphins drowned in their nets) as well. However, bearing in mind the research noted above, and the testimonial, at :35 (seconds) into this video, strict monitoring of protected zones for these dolphins would be crucial.
Even if there haven’t been Maui’s Dolphins sighted in recent months around the Taranaki coastline, genetic sampling has determined that the Maui’s have been seen much further south, including Manganui and Wellington Harbor. Because these are ranging animals, Maui’s Dolphins have come close enough to Taranaki to justify a mandatory buffer zone. Furthermore Department of Conservation’s (New Zealand) recent population estimate of only 55, and a maximum of 79 Maui’s Dolphins left, cannot be denied.
Sharing some recent good news: “For the first time in 26 years, seven Sumatran rhinos were filmed on hidden cameras this week in an Indonesian national park. Some feared the critically endangered species had become extinct in the region.” An important point comes to mind. As if a dense forest may be a difficult habitat to find an endangered species, it is even more difficult in the ocean environment to sight the presence of highly migratory marine species such as dolphins.
Degradation and loss of habitat key factors towards extinction. “Bottom trawling - dragging nets across the sea floor to scoop up fish - stirs up the sediment lying on the seabed, displaces or harms some marine species, causes pollutants to mix into plankton and move into the food chain and creates harmful algae blooms or oxygen-deficient dead zones.”
And worse yet are the severely detrimental impacts caused by seabed mining which is being permitted by the New Zealand government (To learn more please watch this 2 minute video by Kiwis Against Seabed Mining “Over 5 billion tons of sand!”)
While representatives of the New Zealand government will claim that there are protective measures for the Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphins, these “safe zones” are far too few and go poorly monitored. “Two dead (Hector’s) dolphins have been found entangled in gillnet gear on the east coast of the ... February 2012 ...caught in a protected area by a net that was illegally set.”
Watching “Wake of the Baiji” (a documentary report by Whale Trackers), the plight and researcher’s report on the loss of this species: “There were some conservation measures... but nothing of real substance ever done”, one could feel China’s lack of sufficient measures to save the Baiji from extinction all too disturbingly reflected by current inadequacy of actions of New Zealand’s government to save “our” Hector’s & Maui’s.
Last month the Cambodian government announced “...it will limit fishing in a zone in the Mekong River to protect critically endangered freshwater dolphins. The government estimates there are between 155 and 175 Irrawaddy dolphins left in Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong River, while WWF last year put the figure at just 85. The newly created zone “will serve the eco-tourism sector and sustainably preserve dolphins,” the statement said.
A standing ovation to Cambodia for recognizing the value of their wildlife for ecotourism. As with whale watching vs whale-killing, the whales are worth billions of dollars to view alive rather than dead. Besides such financial benefits to reap, when it comes to sustaining healthy oceans and the integral role of all species, a favorite quote comes to mind.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.”
In New Zealand, while some fishermen have proposed deploying gillnet pingers as solution. Unfortunately “Research shows that pingers, which emit sounds intended to warn dolphins about nets, don’t work for Hector’s dolphins.” However, there are “Many alternative fishing methods are available...”* that are not implicated with killing the Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphins. (Quoting Dr. Liz Slooten, University of Otago, bottom of page)
Will the New Zealand government clean up their act and earn that “100% Pure” shine?
What will it take to save the Maui’s and Hector’s Dolphins from extinction?
One friend, a professor of Environmental Policy, who this year released a report on Ocean Governance issues in New Zealand, answered: "It will take grassroots efforts and the citizens of New Zealand to march the streets." We can only hope and do all we can to move the New Zealand government into a new light of true “green”.
And “What about the Unicorns?” Unlike the Unicorns, Maui’s Dolphins really do exist. But these endemic marine species could become as the Unicorn, a creature never actually seen. That is if we let them go extinct. Please join us as a global voice (face) for these Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphins as we let the New Zealand government that the world is watching!
*Quoting Dr. Liz Slooten, University of Otago:
“Many alternative fishing methods are available. These include fish traps and a range of hook and line methods. These are already being used around NZ. For example, fish traps are being used to catch ling in the Otago area and to catch blue cod in Foveaux Strait. These look like a slightly larger version of a crayfish trap. With openings for the fish to swim into them and bait inside the trap. Hook and line methods (long lines) are being used in Cook Strait to catch hapuku (groper), in the Hauraki Gulf to catch snapper, and in many other areas around NZ. The vast majority of marine recreational fishers (a ministry of fisheries study estimates more than 90%) do not use gillnets.
The good news is that these more selective, sustainable fishing methods are much better for the fishing industry as well. Not only do they avoid bycatch of dolphins, seabirds and unwanted fish species. But fish of the wrong size can be removed from the trap and put back into the water alive. Most fish that comes out of a gillnet or trawl is dead. So these net fisheries are very wasteful. In the long term, selective, sustainable fishing methods are in everyone’s interest, including the economic interest of the fishing industry.”