Editorial: Can destructive bill save Maui's dolphin?

Last updated 05:00 30/06/2012
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OPINION: Maui's dolphin is a little, short-lived mammal that becomes sexually mature only when it is approaching middle age, and then has a low reproductive rate.

Because of its diminutive size, it favours shallow water – less than 100 metres deep – and seldom, if ever, strays outside its highly localised inshore territory between Kaipara to the north and Mokau to the south.

But nobody can say for sure that it doesn't swim further, and that is the reasoning behind new protective measures about to be put in place that threaten to destroy Taranaki's commercial fishing industry.

Despite the fact that in the past 90 years there have been just 45 reported deaths along the west coast of the North Island of either Maui's dolphins, or their cousin the Hector's dolphins – with a mere three of them caused by fishing with set nets – the Government this week announced a total ban on the use of these nets for commercial or recreational fishing along the entire Taranaki coastline as far south of Hawera and two nautical miles out to sea. As well, all commercial fishing boats set-netting up to seven nautical miles out will be required to have on board a taxpayer-funded observer, whose tasks will include having to report any dolphin sightings to the Conservation Department. Chances are these observers will have little to do, because no-one has seen a Maui's dolphin off Taranaki. It all seems a little like introducing a whale watch on Lake Taupo.

But nobody will argue that the Maui's dolphin isn't a critically endangered species. Latest research suggests there are now just 55 of the mammals older than 1 year old, and that this population is declining at a rate of three per cent a year.

Under the Fisheries Act 1996, the Government is required to avoid, remedy and mitigate any adverse effects of fishing on the aquatic environment, so it needed to do something to try to at least arrest this trend.

The trouble is that on the one hand, the fishing industry is now arguing that the set net prohibition won't do an ounce of good, because it isn't backed by any conclusive research, while on the other hand conservation groups are arguing that the new regulations don't go far enough.

What is already clear is that Taranaki's commercial fishing industry will be seriously harmed by the new regulations. It is estimated their annual economic impact will be close to $420,000, with potential flow-on impacts of about $2 million. Eighteen job losses were confirmed within hours of the decision being released.

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There will be an enormous potential financial hit for the owners and crew of the eight trawlers that operate out of Port Taranaki and who rely on set-netting to catch the blue warehou, rig and school shark that are so important to their financial viability.

New Zealand would be condemned if it did not do its utmost to protect the world's rarest dolphin, but for every Maui's remaining there is at least one Taranaki resident whose livelihood is now endangered.

- Taranaki Daily News

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