Concerns have been mounting overseas that New Zealand could preside over the extinction of the Maui's dolphin, rebranded the "hobbit of the sea" by conservationists. So why were we the only country to vote against added safeguards for the species? Matt Stewart investigates.
International marine experts have expressed their "extreme concern" at the significant decline in the number of Maui's dolphins.
So it seems all the more puzzling that, in September, New Zealand was the only nation to vote against more protection for the critically endangered dolphins at the world's largest conservation summit, in Korea.
Unless much of the dolphins' swimming grounds, including harbours, is protected against gill netting and trawling, the dolphins will shrink to 10 adult females within six years, the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee was told last month.
Without that level of protection, Maui's would become "functionally extinct" in less than 20 years - functional extinction is defined as fewer than three breeding females.
At last year's World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about 576 members, including governments and NGOs, voted for the motion to ban gill and trawl nets out to the 100-metre depth contour of the dolphins' habitat, on the North Island's west coast between Dargaville and Whanganui.
In opposing the vote, New Zealand cited a lack of scientific evidence that the contour reflected the limit of the dolphins' full range.
But the Department of Conservation wanted the Government to abstain from voting over increased protection for the dolphins to defend the country's global reputation.
Emails between lead agencies the Ministry for Primary Industries and DOC, obtained under the Official Information Act, reveal DOC wanted the Government to abstain, while the ministry pushed for a "no" vote.
"In my opinion, abstaining carries less reputational risk for New Zealand," DOC senior marine adviser Tara Ross- Watt wrote in an email to ministry inshore fisheries manager Andrew Doube.
"In our view it would be very difficult for a government department to do anything other than vote against motions that are contrary to government policy," Mr Doube replied.
Mr Ross-Watt had previously stated that the "unresolved nature" of the policy around the Threat Management Plan (TMP) for Maui's dolphins, which has been under review since late last year, did not strike him as "being wholly contrary to policy".
Leading up to the vote, New Zealand head of delegation to the IUCN Andrew Bignell sent an urgent email to Mr Doube and Mr Ross-Scott questioning his instructions from the Government to vote against the motion. "It is highly preferable for New Zealand to be able to support the motion, given the work we have done on dolphin conservation nationally and internationally," Mr Bignell wrote. "At a minimum, I would wish to be able to abstain to preserve our reputation for dolphin work."
WWF-New Zealand executive director Chris Howe said the correspondence showed clearly that senior DOC officials "were rightly concerned about New Zealand's reputation if the Government voted against a motion to stop the extinction of Maui's and Hector's dolphins. They expressed a clear preference on voting for the motion, or at the minimum, abstaining."
He also questioned why the ministry had the final say on how the Government voted on the motion. "Why is MPI leading on decisions on Maui's dolphins at international conservation meetings?
"The National-led Government needs to give some power back to DOC and recognise that saving our most precious species - including our Hector's and Maui's dolphins, and our . . . sea lions - is in the interest of all New Zealanders."
In response to Mr Howe, ministry deputy director-general of resource management and programmes Scott Gallacher said it was responsible under the Fisheries Act for managing impacts of fishing on protected species.
"The IUCN motion explicitly referred to fishing measures. MPI was therefore going to be a contributor to the Government's position. Ultimately, it was the New Zealand Government's position to oppose the IUCN motion to ban gill and trawl nets out to the 100-metre contour," Mr Gallacher said.
"New Zealand's fisheries management is regarded as world leading, and the reason for this is that decisions are based on robust and sound scientific evidence. It is MPI's assessment that banning fishing to 100 metres depth contour, as proposed in the IUCN motion, is not backed by strong scientific evidence for Maui's dolphins.
"It would be inappropriate to close all fishing activity in the absence of strong scientific evidence."
There were already extensive restrictions on fishing activity to help protect Maui's and Hector's dolphins, Mr Gallacher said.
The latest genetic mark-recapture analysis, done in 2010-11, estimates there are 55 Maui's dolphins more than one year old left, making them the rarest marine dolphin on the planet.
DOC received more than 70,000 public submissions on the review of the Threat Management Plan, which looks at all human threats including fishing, vessel traffic, mining, construction, coastal development, pollution, sedimentation, oil spills, and any other contributing factors.
Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and Conservation Minister Nick Smith have taken advice from DOC and the ministry over the plan review and a decision is expected this month.
- The Dominion Post
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