For years I’ve been writing on this blog and elsewhere about New Zealand’s shame in failing Māui and Hector’s dolphins. Here I go again.
On Friday just gone, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash assembled at Auckland’s waterfront to announce cameras on a paltry 28 of the 1000 fishing boats in New Zealand’s waters, with the claim they were taking action to save Māui dolphins.
But no one in the conservation or scientific community, has hailed this as a success or an action that is appropriate given Māui and Hector’s endangered status, and the risks they face in fishing nets. Conservationists and scientists who have been calling for better protection for Māui and Hector’s, and for the Labour-led Government to reinstate the (wider) camera programme they inherited from National, but cancelled, have unanimously given the camera programme announced by the PM, a resounding thumbs down. But why? And shouldn’t we just be satisfied with this modest first step? Are we a bunch of whingers, never satisfied, and shouldn’t we be grateful it’s not National we’re dealing with here?
Across the board, NGOs such as Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, World Animal Protection, Sea Shepherd and others, as well as leading scientists, have all denounced the camera initiative, saying it’s underwhelming, inadequate, a back down to the fishing industry. Indeed, Volker Kuntzsch head of Sanford’s was at the announcement, commending the Government. You know an initiative lacks rigour when the industry being regulated approves of it. Indeed, of all interested parties, the camera programme as announced, is a victory for the fishing industry, not for the dolphins.
Whereas National were proposing a roll out of cameras on all fishing vessels in the Māui and Hector’s habitat, Labour’s proposal covers just up to 28 in Māui’s North Island home. Whereas most industries have to pay for their own monitoring and enforcement, in this case, the ‘Wellbeing Budget’ – you and me – subsidises the fishing sector to the tune of an initial $17million. That’s a cost of about $600,000 a boat. The Government could have funded a switch to dolphin friendly fishing gear for that price, so the camera deal smells like a rort. Most of the core Māui dolphin habitat already has observer coverage – which has come at the cost of observers in the rest of New Zealand, where it’s especially needed, such as in the Hector’s dolphin killing fields, where dozens – even hundreds, of these endangered, endemic dolphins, are killed every year in set and trawl nets, unobserved, and often unreported. The proposed camera programme won’t stop Māui – or Hector’s dolphins being killed. It will just bear witness to those acts. Observation is no substitute for protection.
The Government says, ‘watch this space’, “the upcoming Māui and Hector’s dolphin Threat Management Plan may be the time for more substantive change”. Certainly, all the country’s NGOs, and those from around the world, including international experts, are calling for protection from set and trawl nets in the whole dolphin habitat – not just cameras. That means in water out to 100m deep wherever the dolphins are found around New Zealand, in the ‘dolphin corridor’ between the North and South Islands, and in harbours; essential, and urgent, if the species is to survive.
At least a dozen Hector’s dolphins are known to have been killed in the fishing industry in the last two summers, with indications that the real figure is at least four times as much, but the Ministry of Fisheries has declined to take immediate and interim actions to keep the remaining dolphins safe, pending the TMP review. But so why now, this media occasion announcing the expensive and fisher-friendly camera programme for Māui?
When you’ve got plenty of political capital, why would this government not do what it takes to keep both Māui and Hector’s safe, in an interim measure, rather than this unsystematic, ill-targeted camera programme? Why are the cameras not being rolled out in Hector’s habitat where the risk of net entrapment is so great, and where there are fewest existing observers? Why put on cameras where there are already observers; and where even though Māui numbers are so low, they already have more protection than most Hector’s?
The answer lies in the economics. I can only suspect it’s because everyone knows Hector’s are getting wiped out in nets, and because there are no observers, that the fishing industry would never accept cameras on those boats. Why would they accept cameras on an industry that could also be closed if the real by-catch costs were once again proven. (Evidence of by-catch was suppressed in the past leading to a Governmental inquiry). The solution – only put cameras on boats where there are already observers, and where the population is so decimated, the chances of seeing a dolphin catch are incredibly slim. Instead, leave the cameras off the majority of the boats doing most of the damage. Don’t rock the boat. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
In Friday’s announcement, the Fisheries Minister said “For me this isn’t just about compliance in any way shape and form. It is about going to the world with a global brand and saying to the world when you buy fish from New Zealand, you are buying from a fishery which is sustainably managed.”
There lies the rub. While the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers a petition from Sea Shepherd for America to ban importation of New Zealand seafood because of Māui dolphin by-catch, the Government and the fishing industry share a podium to claim the high ground and credit for a hollow gesture. It won’t save Māui – or Hector’s dolphins, but it might save the NZ fishing industry reputation.
Many conservationists like me have spent the better part of our lives struggling against the fishing industry and even kind governments, for comprehensive, actual protection of these charming little dolphins only found here. We are told that we should be satisfied with paying millions of dollars for cameras on 28 of 1000 fishing boats. We’re told it’s a good start. We’re told we should be glad it’s not National. Indeed, these cameras should be just a start, and the Threat Management Plan has to deliver more for the dolphins, more for biodiversity, and perhaps less for the fishing industry, if the Government’s credibility on this issue, and the dolphins, are to survive.