If the word of 2020 was ‘unprecedented’, and here we are in Lockdown again, does that mean the word of 2021 is precedented? Still, I’d rather be here than anywhere else, and that was the case before Covid 19. It sure is the case after it. But it’s not just Covid 19 that’s on my mind this week. Because I get a sense of déjà vu and business as usual when it comes to – well, business as usual, at the edge, and the end, of the world.
Climate change bites, we’re in a mass extinction event, the pandemic changes the way the world works but the maxim of capitalism to socialise costs and privatise profits continues to hold true. We’re in the stage of the macroeconomic cycle where state intervention follows, sustains and mitigates the effects of neoliberalism.
After years of a fossil fuelled boom, in Fox township hotel chains and tourism companies clamour for support to keep afloat, though its star attraction, the glacier, retreats at around 4m per year. (Come and see it before it’s gone?” ‘last chance’ tourism – there’s a market in that). Councils in the North take a punitive approach to freedom camping when locals are the only visitors they can get. As a born and bred freedom camping Kiwi, that feels like theft of the commons. Meanwhile, in a greater crime, coastal land is carved up for holiday homes, whose owners’ cars and dogs kill kiwi.
Unbelievable pollution and contamination of New Zealand is exposed by the media, but consumers barely bat an eyelid. It’s consumer demand that generates and sustains this pollution after all, and who wants to own that? New Zealand’s ‘trusted brands’, family favourites, pour shit, animal processing products and toxins into underequipped municipal ‘wastewater systems’ or straight into the river or sea. Other primary industries are subsidised with air freight, despite the obvious unsustainability of both their natural resource extraction and the flights themselves. Market decisions are more powerful in determining responses to climate change than incremental and modest government attempts.
But there was a classic display of business green – or blue-washing successfully executed late last week, a real PR coup especially in that it had the Prime Minister’s blessing. The media celebrated uncritically, the launch of a drone project to track endangered Māui dolphins. Māui dolphins are NZ’s most urgent conservation issue according to scientists, so their drone project is good news you’d think. They’re one of the rarest dolphins in the world. The headlines read ‘Maui drone project launched to bring Māui back from the brink’, “launched with the Prime Minister’s support’!!’ (RNZ); ‘How a drone could save our rarest dolphin’ (Stuff); ‘Drone project to aid protection of Māui dolphin’ (Sunlive), and so on. I even found reports on the project at ChinaDailyAsia.com and USNewsandWorldReport. That will be helpful for New Zealand’s reputation, its seafood export brand, and its credentials in the US court case taken by Sea Shepherd who seek an injunction against NZ imports because of the Government’s failure to deal with dolphin bycatch.
All that news coverage was great publicity for the noble collaborators – WWF who get funds from the fishing companies and the public; the fishing companies who get endorsed by WWF; and the Government for looking like it’s doing something tangible –“saving dolphins”. But the project, backed by the PM, also takes the heat off Sanford just fined $36,000 and ordered to forfeit a $20million boat for fishing illegally in a Benthic Protected Area, twice.
The Government’s Ministry for Primary Industries is contributing $500,000 to the drone project. At Friday’s launch, Minister of Oceans and Fisheries David Parker said “we are committed to saving this treasure”. He didn’t say, “but we still don’t have cameras on fishing boats and we are still waiting for the further consultation on extra measures to keep small Hector’s dolphin populations in the South Island safe from displaced, concentrated fishing pressure, which was promised after the launch of the Threat Management Plan last year”.
None of the media releases and news reports explored how these exciting new drones, (“technology!!”) would actually save Māui dolphins. Many scientists, including International Whaling Commission experts, argue that habitat and distribution is already well known. These are well studied dolphins after all. MPI and their consultant scientists have been accused of ignoring sightings and distribution data in the past. Gathering more data is interesting, but is no substitute for genuine action and responses to knowledge we already have, which show the dolphins further offshore than current protections cover.
The only way these drones could ‘save’ Māui dolphins is if they prove the dolphins are outside current protected areas, and those areas then get closed to fishing. Do you think a project supported by fishing companies is likely to do that? Apparently, the plan “will help inform decisions by Seafood companies such as Moana New Zealand and Sanford”, but this is still a voluntary approach. Nothing compels the fishing companies to do anything. It’s the fishing industries who will determine what, if any action is taken.
This ‘species-saving’ drone is only expected to operate once a month, though that’s an increase on current DoC surveys, which apparently only occur for three weeks every five years (for this valued ‘treasure’!?). There’s the risk that if the drone doesn’t show dolphins during its twelve flights a year, the fishing companies take that absence of proof as proof of absence and argue against current and future fishing regulations that should otherwise keep dolphins and other marine life safe.
While almost anything that adds to the science and understanding of the dolphins is a good thing, even if it’s the result of an unholy alliance*, its use and application is what matters.
Drones won’t save dolphins, only protection from threats will. With only around 63 adult Māui dolphins left, to say and do otherwise is bluewashing – at the edge of extinction and end of the world.
*I say unholy alliance because WWF & the fishing companies banded together at the close of the TMP with their own Option Five which undermined the NGO/science consensus that full habitat protection was essential.