'Urgent action' needed to save dolphins

ACTION NEEDED: A Maui's dolphin.
ACTION NEEDED: A Maui's dolphin.

The Government has avoided saying whether it would extend a trawling ban to protect Maui's dolphins, which experts fear are only a few decades from extinction.

The latest estimate is that there are only 55 of the dolphins - the North Island sub-species of the Hector's dolphin - aged one-year or older.

A status update presented to the International Whaling Commission scientific committee's annual meeting last month said the population had declined significantly.

It said that unless much of their swimming grounds, including harbours, were protected against gill netting and trawling, the dolphins would decline to 10 adult females in six years.

Without that level of protection the sub-species would become functionally extinct in less than 20 years, even under maximum population growth. Functional extinction was defined as fewer than three breeding females.

"The committee therefore recommends that rather than seeking further scientific evidence, the highest priority should be given to immediate management actions that will lead to the elimination of bycatch of Maui's dolphins," it said.

"This includes full closures of any fisheries within the range of Maui's dolphins that are known to pose a risk of bycatch of small cetaceans."

Conservation Minister Nick Smith told Parliament the Government would carefully consider the committee's advice as part of a review of the threat management plan for Maui's dolphins, adding that the IWC had yet  to adopt the scientific committee's report.

Asked by Green Party MP Gareth Hughes whether the Government would implement the recommendation for full closure of any fisheries within the range of Maui's dolphins known to pose a risk of bycatch, Smith said the key issue was defining where the habitat was.

"We don't want to be in the business of either banning trawling or set netting where the Maui's dolphin is not, but we're also determined to make sure that we do do all practical steps to ensure the survival of this pretty special species."

Smith referred to the catching of a dolphin - either Maui's or Hector's -  in a commercial set net off Taranaki in January 2012. The Government had responded by banning set netting in the area and extended the role of observers, Smith said.

Overall, set net fishing was prohibited over 6000sqkm, and trawling over 1700sqkm as part of measures to protect the Maui's dolphin, he said.

Hughes asked whether the Government would extend the ban on trawling to all the areas where set nets were banned.

Smith avoided the question but did comment: "Sometimes I wonder whether the only way to satisfy the Green Party would be to shut down the entire fishing industry."

Labour MP Ruth Dyson asked whether the Government would be taking a precautionary approach in areas where Maui's dolphins were found.

"It's very easy to say precautionary," Smith replied.

"The question is how precautionary, because if you want to be absolutely precautionary about protection of the maui's dolphin then you would ban fishing around New Zealand's entire coast. Now that would be impractical."

The Government would take all practical steps to ensure the survival of the Maui's dolphin, "but we are not going to ban fishing in areas where it's highly unlikely that there will be a maui's dolphin."

The Ministry for Primary Industries said the core range of Maui's dolphins was on the North Island west coast between the Kaipara and Raglan harbours.

The most southerly research sighting was just south of the Mokau River, just north of the boundary between Waikato and Taranaki.

Public sightings had been reported through the Taranaki area, but there were questions about how certain they were to be Maui's dolphins. Research and sighting information suggested Maui's dolphins were most prevalent up to about 7.5km offshore.