A tale of two (threatened) species

Last updated 14:44 17/08/2012

This is a story of two species of native animal that are found only in New Zealand. Both species are large, cute and cuddly animals that live for a long time. Both have adorable babies and both are a part of our national story and identity.

Species number one is well known to many New Zealanders even though most people will never see one. The kakapo is world famous for its endearing physical qualities, curiosity and intelligence and for the story of how rare it is - clinging to the edge of survival.  For 21 years, an unusual alliance has seen a partnership between the Department of Conservation, the New Zealand Aluminium smelter and Forest & Bird, all working together toward the recovery of the species. Our kakapo reached as few as 50 individuals just 20 years ago - the constant victims of stoats, cats and other predators. A predator-free sanctuary home on Codfish Island and a handful of other islands has seen the kakapo make a slow and steady recovery to 125 birds this year.

kakapo babies

Cute kakapo chicks get plenty of helping hands (Picure: Sam O'Leary). 

The dedication of conservation workers, scientists and volunteers from the public to help protect kakapo is legendary. People make no complaints about traipsing the steep, muddy and challenging terrain to either feed or keep a watch over breeding kakapo. The opportunity to be a kakapo "nestminder" where you reverse your sleeping pattern, sleeping during the day and lying awake at night in a tent pitched next to a kakapo nest, is so popular, the volunteers list has thousands of would-be kakapo babysitters.

Imagine if you will if the Government allowed pheasant shooters down to Codfish every year (let's pretend that there were pheasants down there), and set a kill limit for the collateral damage to kakapo of a few kakapo a season, in order to allow a few people to keep shooting pheasants, and kakapo chick numbers almost halved as a result over 14 years - there'd be a public outcry, both here and internationally.

Yet that is exactly what is happening every year to our New Zealand sea lions or whakahao - one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world. Large, long-lived and with cute babies and also on the "Nationally Critical" list. But in this instance, instead of camping out at night next to them to ensure their survival, we're contributing to their rapid decline.

NZ sea lion babies

Newly born New Zealand pups, Enderby Island, Auckland Islands (Picture: Nicola Toki)

Once found all around New Zealand's coasts, these large pinnipeds were hunted by Maori and later by European sealers, which pushed their population to the edge of extinction. For a long time the only place the sea lions bred was in the Sub-Antarctic Islands, mostly on the Auckland Islands. The Auckland Island population remains their stronghold.  

The Auckland Islands are also in the vicinity of our squid fishery, and every year huge trawlers head down to the area to catch squid. Unfortunately, they are also catching sea lions. Every year the Government sets a kill limit for sea lions - which is essentially a mathematical equation based on the distance the trawlers cover and the number of "tows" they do. e.g. if you travel x kilometres, then y sea lions are presumed to have been caught. Once the total presumed number of sea lions gets caught (z) then the trawlers must go home.

The science is clear on this issue. Globally, pinnipeds are threatened either directly or indirectly by fishing. Between 1998 and 2011, New Zealand sea lion pup numbers declined by 50 per cent. A recent paper by New Zealand's sea lion expert published in Polar Biology predicts the functional extinction of the Auckland Island sea lions by 2035.  And yet we keep fishing for squid. What's the story?

The industry says that the sea lion problem is solved because they are using sea lion exclusion devices (SLEDS). These are a bit like a trapdoor in the net, which is supposed to allow the sea lion to escape alive.  There is no evidence to suggest that sea lions that escape the nets actually survive. And that is the crux of the debate.

The squid fishing industry says that because sea lions are not being observed in the nets, the sea lions are not being killed. But we don't know that. There is no proof that dead sea lions are retained in the nets. The key here is on the question of whether sea lions are being ejected dead from the nets, either by drowning or by hitting the steel bar of the SLED so hard on the way out of the trawl that they are killed or made unconscious, then drown. We know that more female sea lions than males get caught in the nets, which is a problem because often the females are pregnant, and have a pup waiting for them on the shore. Killing her can kill three animals in one go.

The Government has promised more observers on squid boats, but if the sea lions are being ejected out of a net, hundreds of metres underwater in the darkness, no observer will be able to see that.  It's too dark to stick cameras down there on the nets, so what we need is proof that SLEDS are working as they are intended to. 

Maybe we need to put a fake sea lion into a net with a SLED to see if it is retained. There is no plan to do so. In fact, the Minister of Primary Industries is so confident that when he announced the sea lion kill limit for this year he said "Improved scientific research shows Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs) that enable sea lions accidentally caught in fishing gear to escape are working". Dr Bruce Robertson, a scientist at Otago University says the minister is wrong.

This week New Zealand was listed as doing poorly on the global "Ocean Health Index". Clearly we are not getting it right with our management of sea lions.  Why is a "nationally critical" (same as kakapo) species being managed by fisheries legislation (instead of conservation)? Why are there no trials to see if SLEDS are actually working? Why are we standing by and watching a species hurtle to extinction when we have the ability to do something about it?

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Lara   #1   03:39 pm Aug 17 2012

Why are we standing by and watching a species hurtle to extinction when we have the ability to do something about it?

I think the answer to that question is glaringly obvious and simple.


The fishing industry makes money and is able to lobby government. Changing the way they operate, halting squid fishing while scientists test SLEDs to see if they actually work, or reducing our fishing operations would all cost money.

We rape and pillage our natural environment, framing it in economic terms as a "resource" and we shall leave a depleted mess for our grandchildren. Shame on us.

The answer is to restructure our economic system so that we don't have to strive for perpetual growth (in a finite space too!) so that we can stabilise our population and the resources required to sustain it.

Until we fix the underlying structural cause of our exploitation of the environment it's all just tinkering around the edges.

Kakapo on Codfish island are simply not in the way of anyone's profits. Yet.

Mearas   #2   03:42 pm Aug 17 2012

Well there's the million dollar question. Literally. Why? The answer is because there is a multi-million dollar fishing industry involved. Bringing Kakapo back from the brink of extinction (not that their species is well safe, not by any stretch) did not involve a big dollar, export-earning industry to have to change its practices - so it was, so to speak, relatively cut-and-dry.

The truth is quite simple, and is well known, and oft quoted: when the buying stops, the killing can, too.

Harper   #3   04:22 pm Aug 17 2012

This is outrageous. This charismatic rather noisy creature will soon be lost forever due to poor and dysfunctional management of them. How much more can we take? It is time for those that care to make a stand.

Alan_Wilkinson   #4   04:37 pm Aug 17 2012

I met a sea lion near Tapeka beach a couple of years ago. Quite a surprise as I had never seen one up here in the north before.

"Why are there no trials to see if SLEDS are actually working? Why are we standing by and watching a species hurtle to extinction when we have the ability to do something about it?"

Yet from the Minister's press release you link to:

“Improved scientific research shows Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs), that enable sea lions accidentally caught in fishing gear to escape, are working."


“I am encouraged that there have been no reported sea lion captures in SQU6T {Auckland Islands region] during the past two completed seasons, with more than 1100 of the trawl tows observed by Ministry for Primary Industry observers”

Jenna   #5   05:45 pm Aug 17 2012

This does sadden me but unfortunately seems to be the attitude of our current govt. Profit over anything.

I'm not sure how to go about these things but I'd definitely put my name to a petition or something to improve the situation.

Feroze Brailsford   #6   05:55 pm Aug 17 2012

Well put Nicki, this issue needs more research. Why is it that instead of listening to the experts, the govt listens to the industry? .I also understand that long-fin is still on the menu for our lovely native bird killing cats. Is that right? If you are planing any action on the issue or other issues get in touch and I will talk to your fan base(ScoKEA)down here in CHCH. Look forward to reading more about what you have to say.

PS: We get lonely. Come visit!! Feroze

Erina   #7   10:24 pm Aug 17 2012

We always seem to leave these things too late before doing something about it. :(

LBV   #8   10:25 am Aug 18 2012

It is obvious that this government has no interest in looking after the environment or protecting endangered species.

Nicola Toki   #9   08:05 am Aug 20 2012

@feroze hi!

@alan_wilkinson (#4). I am convinced that either you come on just to wind everyone up or you truly do not read my blogs. The whole point I was making was about the Minister saying SLEDS are working fine, when In fact there is no evidence to say that they are working as they are intended to (the answer would be if the nets retained dead sea lions, there's nothing to say that they are). If you can't understand my blog, give this article from the Sunday Star Times a go. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/7505056/Sea-lions-survival-at-risk-from-bad-advice the onus is on the fishing industry to prove that they are not killing sea lions, and they haven't.

Alan_Wilkinson   #10   04:59 pm Aug 20 2012

Nicola, you do have a point this time as I did overlook you had already quoted the Minister. However your conclusion that sea lions are still at risk seems at least as speculative as the Department's conclusion that the SLED's are working as intended.

Moreover, this video seems pretty good evidence for the Department's opinion, not for yours: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lBHIBMULhI

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