Threat to sea lions ignored

DAVID CARTER: Primary Industries Minister.
DAVID CARTER: Primary Industries Minister.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter has decreed a 140 per cent increase in squid fishing effort next year as official papers reveal he ignored explicit evidence that extra fishing may devastate populations of the world's rarest sea lion.

Carter ignored an alarm raised by the Conservation Department (DOC) and instead fishing crews can more than double the squid trawling tows they do in waters where the New Zealand sea lion hunts for food.

Documents show he did this on the advice of the fishing industry and iwi that, under the Treaty of Waitangi, own much of the squid quota in an area known as SQU6T, southeast of the Auckland Islands.

When Otago University zoologist Dr Bruce Robertson wrote to him pointing out the dangers, Carter wrote back telling him not to bother him.

"He had a handwritten note on one of his letters saying ‘I do not want to talk any further to you about this'; basically telling me to get stuffed," Robertson said.

Robertson used the Official Information Act to obtain DOC advice to the Primary Industries Ministry as it considered allowing more trawling in SQU6T.

Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson asked to have the increase stopped, even pleading to be allowed into a meeting planned with Deepwater Group Ltd, a consortium of fishing companies.

The ministry believes sea lion exclusion devices (SLED) on nets meant seals were not killed - but Robertson has data showing sharply falling sea lion numbers.

Carter said the boats, mainly foreign charter vessels (FCVs) operated by Nelson's Sealord Ltd and Auckland's Sanford Fisheries, can next season run 4700 trawl tows across the sea lion's territory - up from 1952.

One of the DOC submissions, from marine conservation acting manager Ian Angus, did not share the ministry's confidence "that the direct effect of fishing-related mortality on the NZ sea lion is minimal".

He said the ministry's policy was "overly strong in support of certain model results, and therefore potentially misleading".

The executive summary "oversimplifies and brushes over the level of complexity inherent in the information . . . The paper appears to throw a lot of numbers around without justifying how they were derived".

Wilkinson told the ministry that greater trawling "could result in significantly greater levels of fishing effort . . . and thus may pose increased risk to the species".

Robertson said the paperwork showed the ministry ignored the science completely.

"These documents show that despite everybody else's concerns the MPI [ministry] is going it alone."

SLEDs are claimed to allow seals an escape route out of a net but Robertson says there is no evidence that the seals survive once they get out.

He said there has been a disastrous fall in sea lion pup numbers: in 1995 there were 2518; in 2011 there were 1550 with continuing decline over the decade.

The ministry received numerous international scientific and environmental submissions against the increased squid effort but Deepwater Group, the Seafood Industry Council and Sanford dismissed sea lion concerns.

One of the more striking submissions came from Kenneth Houkamau of Ngati Porou Seafoods Ltd, speaking for 12 iwi who had pooled their catch entitlements.

He said under the Treaty they had rangatiratanga over the fishery and they were satisfied there was no risk to sea lions.

"Until we can see evidence that the squid fisheries is the cause of the sea lions' continued decline we cannot oppose the new operational plan," Ngati Porou said.

Sunday Star Times