Saving Maui: Four Hector’s Dolphin caught in NZ fishing nets

Hector’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) along with it’s sub-species Maui Dolphin are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. They are endemic to New Zealand’s coastal waters and while their population numbers approximately 10,000–15,000 individuals, they are classified as ‘Nationally Endangered’ by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.

Hector’s Dolphins in Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand (Photo by Jai O’Hagan with permission)

News was released today from Fisheries New Zealand that four Hector’s Dolphin deaths were reported by commercial fishers in December 2018. Fisheries New Zealand were informed that the dolphins were caught in two separate events of commercial trawl fishing off the East Coast of the South Island — one in which one dolphin was caught off the coast of Timaru, and another where three were caught in Pegasus Bay. The Canterbury coastline is a hot spot for the Hector’s Dolphin and most of it is part of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary which extends from the north bank of the Waipara River to the mouth of the Rakaia River. Commercial and recreational set nets in this area— which are the biggest threats to Hector’s Dolphins — are banned within four nautical miles from the coastline, while trawling is banned within two nautical miles.

Fisheries New Zealand praised the prompt reporting of these recent deaths, however it highlights the lack of regulation around reporting bycatch and the monitoring of fishing practices in New Zealand’s marine environment. It is not an offence to accidentally capture a dolphin, however it is an offence to fail to report any bycatch, which comes with a punishment of a $10,000 fine. It is clear though, that reporting practices are not adequately policed. There are a small number of observers on commercial vessels, no formal monitoring of recreational fishing, and poor incentives to report entanglements. In recent years, reports have surfaced of the fishing industry under reporting bycatch of marine species and also lobbying the Ministry of Primary Industries to prevent more restrictions on commercial fishing.

The announcement of the four dolphin deaths come just weeks after the New Zealand Government decided to delay the roll out of mandatory cameras on commercial fishing boats. In 2017, the former National Government proposed that the implementation of electronic monitoring of commercial fishing vessels would protect the sustainability of fish stocks and act as a deterrent against illegal activity, such as failure to report by-catch. However, current Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash believes details of the policy still needed to be worked out with further public consultation taking place later this year.

The Threat Management Plan for Hector’s and Maui Dolphins is currently under review with formal public consultation due to take place between March and April 2019. Conservation groups such as the NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust are advocating to ban set nets and trawl nets in dolphin habitats and extend protected waters to 100m deep. It is clear with these latest deaths that the Government and the fishing industry must be held to account and move to fishing methods and practices that will not continue to endanger any protected species in New Zealand waters.

Some key people you can write to about protecting these dolphins:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern:
Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash:
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage:

1. If you go fishing, do not use nets. Only use fish traps, hook and line, a fishing rod or other dolphin-safe fishing methods.

2. When you see dolphins, slow down, enjoy spending time with them. Avoid sudden changes in speed or direction.

3. Talk to your friends, relatives, workmates, members of your local surfing club, kayak club, diving club and conservation groups.

4. Make an appointment with your local Member of Parliament, to ask them what they are doing about saving NZ dolphins. You can make an appointment with your local MP by calling their office. They will usually meet with people in their electorate on Saturday mornings.

5. Keep an eye out for the Public Discussion Document, due to come out late this year or early 2019 — and write to the government supporting the most protective option. If the public discussion document does not include a sustainable option, we will propose an additional option. For example, if the public is asked to choose between 3 options, none of which is enough to protect NZ dolphins, then the Trust and other conservation groups will propose an “Option 4” that does provide full protection.