National’s pre-election promises saw some wins for the environment – perhaps as the party sought to appease its “Blue-Green” voters and broaden its popular appeal. Some of the ecological gains were a long time in the making, overdue even– such as the series of marine reserves on the South Island’s West Coast, and the ban on shark finning. And to be fair, both these initiatives don’t go as far as they should. The Devil’s always in the detail – and the Marine Reserves, though worthy, are too small and separated to protect habitats, and the shark fin policy exempts some sharks, and contains a bizarre ‘fins reattached’ clause which allows the killing of low value shark for their fins anyway, as long as said fins are reattached to any shark afterwards.
But most irrational in the environmental policy suite elicited from National before the election, was actually the omission of a critical issue. The issue of Maui (formerly Maui’s) and Hector’s dolphins. Here we have the world’s smallest and loveliest marine dolphin. Found nowhere else in the world. Iconic in their representation of everything that’s fragile and precious about the marine environment. Subjects of huge public appeal, and easily seen from the shore, often present with swimmers and surfers, even off Auckland’s West Coast beaches. They’re also the centre of significant international attention, with the International Whaling Commission, the International Society of Marine Mammalogy and international and national NGOs unanimous in their call for better protection.
Is it conflict of interest that prevents the National Government doing what’s required, even in election year, to save these dolphins? Peter Goodfellow, the National Party President is a major shareholder in Sanfords, and a Director of the SeaFood Industry Council, after all.
Whatever the motivation, the Government certainly has a persistent message for those who express their concerns about the dolphins and the Government’s lack of action. The “Blue-Greenwash” narrative goes “We’re doing everything we can. We’ve protected the dolphins. Everywhere they go they are safe thanks to us.…”
In fact, the Minister of Conservation Nick Smith, discounted 48 verified dolphin sightings when he decided on the limits of the most recent ‘protection’ measures. The promised 25% increments of observers on trawl vessels have been delayed. Boat based surveys budgeted for last summer were not implemented. Dangerous seismic testing for oil and gas, and mineral extraction, loom throughout the dolphin habitat. The Government reintroduced ring-netting into the Manukau Harbour – dolphin habitat.
The confirmed entrapment of a Maui or Hector’s dolphin in a recreational set net on the Bay of Plenty side of East Cape earlier this year proves the range of these dolphins is way further than is currently protected, meaning the risk of entrapment is even more significant.
If the Government was serious about dolphin conservation they would see past their own spin, listen to Department of Conservation scientists (who say up to eight Maui dolphins could be killed in any year from trawl nets for example, but that the population can’t sustain any), respond to global pressures, and get the nets out of the dolphin habitat – around much of New Zealand’s coastline and out to 100m deep.
Some of the world’s civilized countries have banned set nets. Protecting our oceans, fish stocks and most charismatic of dolphins is in our environmental, economic and social best interests. In failing to protect the most vulnerable and lovely dolphins, in addition to their other faults, this Government shows they also fail to meet the test of ‘civilized’.