After years of fishing industry denial that their practices pose any harm to Maui dolphins, this week two significant New Zealand fishing companies announced they were aiming for Maui-safe fishing methods on the North Island West Coast by 2022.
For the first time, there’s an open acknowledgement from fishing industry heavyweights Sanfords and Moana NZ, that they’re setting and trawling nets in Maui dolphin habitat, putting them at risk, creating, by way of implication, a “conservation emergency”.
Maui dolphins are only found of the North Island’s West Coast – and there are only about 63 adults left. There’s no evidence of a ‘stabilised’ population as claimed by Minster of Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, and even if it had – at 63 that’s nothing to celebrate. Their cousins, Hector’s dolphins, found in both the North and South Islands, exist in genetically and geographically distinct sub-populations but have relatively less protection, and risk local and wider extinctions too.
The New Zealand fishing industry needed some positive spin after it suffered from major reputational damage throughout the year. Revelations from researchers and whistle blowers have exposed massive under-reporting of over-killing the ocean. Dolphin, sea bird, sea lion bycatch and unreported dumping of unwanted fish, captured on film and in catch records, have been denied by industry players and defended by the Government. International opprobrium from the world’s key conservation bodies has been consistent and strong – with New Zealand regularly condemned at the International Whaling Convention and the International Union of Conservation Networks (IUCN) for its lack of action in addressing the endangerment of Maui (and Hector’s) dolphins in the New Zealand fishing industry. International and domestic campaigns have highlighted the link between NZ fisheries and dolphin deaths. There have been international consumer boycotts. Public opinion surveys regularly report strong sympathy with the dolphins to the extent Kiwis would even pay more taxes and / or more for their fish to save the dolphins. NGOs have taken the wee Maui dolphin to heart, and with their rounded fin Maui have become a conservation icon, a symbol of all that’s wrong with what we’re doing to the ocean – including over-fishing, seismic testing, pollution.
NGOs, civil society and scientists have been urging governments for years to protect the full habitat of Maui dolphins. That means an area from Maunganui Bluff in the North, to at least Whanganui river in the South. It should also include the dolphin corridor all the way to the South Island where Maui and/or Hector’s dolphins are also found. Scientists say Maui dolphin habitat extends to at least the 100 metre depth contour, a claim the government refuses to be guided by. The dolphins are sometimes found inside West Coast harbours. But some set netting is allowed, and the government, early in its term, reopened the Manukau harbour to ring netting. At every turn, the Government has said it was doing enough to mitigate the risks to this, the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin. Armed with promises and spin, they have refused to do more.
It seemed that the government-fishing lobby relationship was too close to allow any movement in either political policy or business practice. With Sir Peter Goodfellow President of the National Party while also major shareholder in Sanfords and Chair of the Seafood Industry Council, environmental groups felt as if they were banging their heads against a monolithic, iron clad, edifice. Fishing industry hegemony ruled with an invisible but iron hand, shaping fisheries resource management, regulation and conservation policy.
So how is it that two of the most significant fishing companies on the North Island West Coast have now admitted their fishing practices and places are putting the precious dolphin at risk such that they’re prepared to voluntarily change?
Their proposals have been praised by some NGOs (“ground breaking”,”leadership”, “inspiring”), tentatively welcomed by others (“a small step in the right direction”), celebrated by various opposition political parties (“stepping up to meet the challenge of protecting Maui dolphins”) and outright criticised by some scientists and iwi, for being too little too late after years of denial and killing.
On paper, at least, Moana and Sanford’s proposals look significant. Their initiatives, developed with environmental organisation WWF, trump any suggestions from the Government. Sanfords and Moana are “committed to a lasting solution” including withdrawing Annual Catch Entitlements (ACE) from coastal set netters north of New Plymouth by next year; South of New Plymouth and in harbours, all set net fishers leasing Sanford or Moana New Zealand annual ACE in Maui habitat will have video cameras and electronic monitoring by October 2017; the companies will support government engagement with other set netters to join this commitment and work with the more than 130 (!) other owner operators who set net inside harbours financially supporting vessel monitoring systems if they wish to join in the initiative. Sanford and Moana New Zealand will transition away from conventional trawl fishing methods within Māui habitat. They will invest resources in dolphin avoidance and/or mitigation measures. “Any fishing method deployed by Sanford or Moana New Zealand from December 2022 has to be recognised as Māui-safe”.
Even though Sanfords are the largest quota owner and catcher of fish along the North Island West Coast, these two companies combined entail less than 50% of the set and trawl net effort in the area. Under the new voluntary proposal, only five out of 15 boats currently operating in the area will be affected. There’s a risk that ACE will be sold to someone else but still fished. Fishing effort may just move elsewhere that’s not protected. The ‘commitment’ isn’t mandatory, enforceable or binding. The government promised full observer coverage on fishing boats in core Maui habitat anyway, even though it’s failed to deliver. The new proposals don’t actually cover the whole Maui habitat. Without a total closure of trawl and set nets within the whole Maui dolphin range – including harbours and areas to the south, applying to all fishing boats, say scientists, the proposal is just so much “PR” and “spin”. “We need to do a whole lot better than this” says Professor Liz Slooten from Otago University, an expert in Maui and Hector’s dolphins who has been ringing this particular alarm bell for more than thirty years.
In announcing voluntary measures to apply fishing restrictions in an area defined as “Maui habitat”, imposing upon themselves, a particular timeframe and technological fix, Sanfords and Moana have managed to pre-empt alternative definitions and solutions, created a self-regulated (though apparently transparent) regime, responded to global and local institutional, public, consumer and NGO pressure, and to be seen to be acting as responsible and righteous corporate citizens in the general and political eye.
Sanfords and Moana have taken the heat off the government which has failed to achieve its own compliance and observer coverage targets anyway. In taking the higher moral ground, they’ve executed clever image and damage control. Whether other fishing companies in the Maui zone rise to the challenge is simply up to them, despite Sanford and Moana’s incentives. Whether the government rises to the challenge and assists the transition away from distinctly dolphin unfriendly methods, and toward a proper binding protection and compliance regime seems less likely, especially now. Whether this precludes more comprehensive protection and lets both the government and the fishing industry ‘off the hook’ from better protection is quite likely.
It’s great marketing, and every life saved is worthwhile. It’s time the fishing industry admitted its impacts and took efforts to address them. It’s a big step forward for a previously resistant industry. But it’s only part of the solution, dealing with some of the problem, and Maui – and Hector’s dolphins, deserve more.