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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Last Chance for New Zealand’s Dolphins

Eminent conservation biologist Professor Andrew Read visited New Zealand last week to discuss the devastating realities of dolphin bycatch both here and abroad, urging government regulations to address commercial fishing methods in the hope of saving the remaining Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins.

Advocacy campaigns to protect these two endemic dolphin species were in full flight late last year in the lead up to the Minister of Fisheries’ decision on the Threat Management Plan (TMP). This decision would ultimately regulate commercial fishing practices that are having a detrimental impact upon the declining populations of Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins. Unfortunately, the final decision regarding protection measures was delayed to late this month due to 2475 submissions contesting the draft proposal. This postponement has kept the dolphins exposed to commercial fishing methods such as set nets, which are primarily responsible for the species’ critically endangered status.

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With the hope of integrating greater conservation measures into the Threat Management Plan, NGOs such as WWF and Forest and Bird, along with academics and scientists, have come together to highlight the impact of set net fishing on dolphin bycatch numbers. Associate Professor Dr Andrew Read from Duke University, who is widely regarded as the world authority in marine mammal bycatch, visited Wellington last week to offer an international perspective into the conservation of Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins and how NZ can improve on current protection measures.

Dr Read’s 90 minute presentation was delivered to a congregation of policy advisors, NGO campaigners and academics to convey the stark truth about the effects that commercial fishing practices are having on marine mammal populations. This forum allowed for an open flow of communications and exchange of positive ideas that was welcomed by those in attendance.

Dr. Read delivered his message to the audience without an agenda, but simply as a scientist relaying his findings. The message was clear. According to research carried out in the United States, an average of 3000 cetaceans and pinnipeds (mostly dolphins and porpoises) are caught as bycatch each year. If this statistic is representative of worldwide figures, then annual dolphin bycatch is around 300,000. Despite these staggering numbers, Dr Read believes that this is a gross underestimation of the actual amount of dolphin bycatch that occurs on commercial fishing vessels.

Of the entire presentation, what resonated the loudest was the finding that 91% of this bycatch was due to the use of set nets. This archaic fishing method is a cost effective, commonly used approach that simply traps everything in a given area rather than targeting a specific species. The animals that are not the target species essentially become collateral damage in the set net fishing process.

Despite Andrew Read’s diplomacy in delivering his message, his results screamed an answer: Set nets have to go. While he acknowledged that there are other factors affecting dolphin bycatch, set net fishing is by far the most influential, and in New Zealand waters is bringing the endemic Hectors and Maui’s species to the brink of extinction. These mammals are long-lived with a slow growth rate, which makes them particularly vulnerable to these external pressures.

To contextualise the situation that New Zealand is currently facing, Dr Read made reference to two other dolphin species whose fate also rests with commercial fishing practices. The Baiji, once found in the Yangtze River, is thought to be extinct due to a hydroelectric company’s fragmentation of its habitat. And the world’s smallest marine cetacean, the Vaquita, which is endemic to the Gulf of California, is down to a population of around 150 due to intensive set net fishing in its home range. The difference between these previous dolphin species and the Hector’s and Maui’s is that New Zealand has a plethora of information and research on its endemic species and therefore the resources to implement conservation measures with efficiency and accuracy. Dr Read repeatedly stressed this point, urging the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries to act on this information before another marine mammal succumbs to exploitative fishing practices.

While his message was bleak it offered hope for the future, if New Zealand’s decision makers are willing to act. Dr Read offered numerous strategies for conservation that have significantly reduced marine mammal bycatch in other parts of the world.

The simple fact is that the Hectors’ and Maui’s dolphins will not survive if fishing practices are not amended. The fate of these creatures lies in the hands of the Ministry of Fisheries, whose finalisation of the Threat Management Plan this month will essentially determine the survival or extinction of New Zealand’s dolphins.

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