Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully sent a warning shot across the bows to South Korea (in diplomatic terms) about their announcement that they are considering conducting whaling for "scientific"* research. This is pretty tough talk on what has become a diplomatic minefield, and one that has resulted in the International Whaling Commission being unable to agree on any suitable outcomes for whale protection over the years. Tales by officials of poorer (sometimes even landlocked) countries turning up to the IWC with their hefty membership fees miraculously paid and then voting alongside pro-whaling countries are not likely to be that far-fetched.
New Zealanders have always taken a strong stand on the "scientific" whaling by Japan, which is a loophole in the moratorium on commercial whaling that allows the Japanese to kill hundreds of minke whales a year in Antarctic waters. Murray McCully described it last week as "commercial whaling in drag".
Whaling by the South Koreans would be a "serious setback for those who are committed to conservation of the species", said McCully.
All good stuff, and great to see the Government taking a hard line on the conservation of marine mammals... as long as you're looking outside of our own waters. A little closer to home and our record starts to look a little shabby.
The IWC gave New Zealand a slap last week for our embarrassing situation with the Maui dolphin. This genetically distinct subspecies of the Hector's dolphin, found only on the West Coast of the North Island between Taranaki and Dargaville, has been listed as "critically endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature redlist.
Our lack of strong action on protecting the Maui dolphins has meant we for the past decade have been monitoring them into extinction. When I worked for the Department of Conservation, about 110 individual animals were left. For a long-lived, slow-breeding species like the Maui dolphin, this is a disaster. This year, a new count of the dolphins found that there were just 55 adult dolphins left. A halving in a handful of years. The other country that got a slap was Mexico for its porpoise, the vaquita. They have 220. We are at the bottom of the pile here.
It's the lack of action that has made our high-mindedness on whaling at the IWC look hypocritical - resulting in the IWC's scientific committee telling us to get our A into G and to ban any gill-netting where the Maui dolphins are found. It's not rocket science. We wouldn't allow hunting where kakapo live (there are 126 kakapo), so why on earth would we allow gill-netting (which we know kills dolphins) where the endangered dolphins live? A recent extension of gill-net bans is a start, but because it only covers some of the habitat, it simply doesn't go far enough.
The first country to lose a species of dolphin to human-induced extinction was China, with the tragic loss of the Yangtze river dolphin. It's looking very much as though "clean green" New Zealand will be next. How can we as a country continue to hold our heads high at international conservation meetings when we can't even protect our own marine mammals?
* Since there has never been a scrap of useful research peer-reviewed in a scientific journal about the whales that come from the "scientific" whaling conducted by Japan, any references to their "scientific" programme will be accompanied by quotation marks to denote the misnomer...
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