There are only 60 Maui dolphins left in the world. Photo: Courtesy of the New Zealand Department of Conservation via Oregon State University

As the public submissions to the plan to save Māui dolphins from extinction closed, a last-minute submission from fishing groups with the backing of an animal advocacy group called for a completely different approach.

The plan, put forward by fishing companies Sanford and Moana fisheries and animal advocates WWF-New Zealand, is called “option five”.

Rather than making a large area out of bounds to methods of fishing that can kill dolphins, it promotes observation and a “move-on” approach if dolphins are seen outside of what it calls the dolphin’s ‘core area’.

WWF-NZ said the four options proposed in the Government plan “do not go far enough” and option five is “bolder”. Others see it as a fishing industry final throw of the dice.

Forest & Bird, Greenpeace and Word Animal Protection have been scathing in their response to option five saying it gambles with the future of the last 60 Māui dolphins. It’s been labelled “cynical”, “reckless” and “weak” and based on unproven technical solutions.

There’s also surprise at WWF-NZ’s sudden about-face on their previous stance on completely banning set netting and trawling in the dolphin’s habitat.

WWF-NZ says its own plan provides a middle-ground in a polarised debate between fishing interests and conservation.

The submission suggests drones, acoustic monitoring, artificial intelligence and thermal imaging are used to record sightings as well as “non-sightings”.

WWF-NZ receives $135,000 a year from Moana New Zealand. CEO Livia Esterhazy said this had nothing to do with the plan, and was related to other work it did with the fishing company to improve sustainability.

Why the WWF-NZ change of heart?

Most conservation groups, including WWF-NZ until option five was announced, have consistently called for banning trawling and set netting in the dolphin’s habitat.

The change of heart has been so sudden, WWF-NZ’s own website has not caught up. It still suggests people write to the Minister of Conservation and request a set net ban in all of the dolphins’ habitat range up to 100m deep.

Esterhazy said WWF-NZ had previously worked with Moana and Sanford on a dolphin protection plan and had been told by MPI this plan had reduced the fishing risk to dolphins by 16 percent.

She said she was told by MPI that to save the species, the fishing risk needed to be reduced by 50 percent. There was also a financial incentive for the industry – achieving this would also avoid a US ban on importing New Zealand fish.

“What if we took the hard mahi and sat down with these guys and went what does that look like? What would a really significant shift in fishing look like?” said Esterhazy.

Option five suggests still fishing in the wider Māui habitat with set nets, but using additional techniques to look for dolphins.

One reason Esterhazy put forward for a sightings-based approach was a possible shift in dolphin range due to climate change affecting food sources.

Observers will feed into a real-time sighting notification system and a forced “move-on” rule will be introduced forcing all vessels in the area to leave if Māui dolphins are spotted.

“With drones, with acoustics, with sonar detection in place we can actually tell fishers in real time.”

She said the drones had not been tested on Māui dolphins before but WWF had been using them in Canada to spot beluga whales.

“Moana and Sanford are leading the way by saying we will adhere to this ourselves. We have committed to voluntarily shift the way our skippers work. Let’s get the drones up in the air. Let’s put this together and let’s make a move-on rule.”

Option five suggests non-sightings also get logged and in 18 months a review of the data be used to update the area where dolphins are known to be at risk.

The objections

Forest & Bird’s marine experts have a number of concerns around logistics in the plan, which they say was submitted at the last minute – too late for public to make comment.

While they see the value for trialling some of the suggestions for the less-threatened Hector’s dolphin they believe the Māui dolphin is too vulnerable for experimentation.

One of the main flaws they see in the plan is the assumption Māui will be easily spotted.

For starters, Māui dolphins are small – about the size of a nine-year-old child. They’re not a four to five-metre long beluga whale. Even skilled observers have trouble spotting them, and say they only spot them about 10 percent of the time. 

Drones and thermal imagery are unproven as a technique to spot Māui dolphins and passive acoustic monitoring only works over a short distance.

Forest & Bird’s strategic advisor Geoff Keey suggests it’s like a needle in a haystack. You might put your arm in a haystack several times and not get pricked, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to assume there’s no needle there.

With the species “literally on its last legs – or last fins” Keey said it’s a gamble not worth taking.

Stakes are too high

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said suggestions in option five put dolphins at risk.

“New Zealanders don’t want to gamble with the extinction of dolphins. We respect WWF-NZ for attempting to find common ground with some in the fishing industry, but we do not support their proposed option and we don’t think other conservationists will either.”

Greenpeace calls option five “the Sanford plan” and labels it ineffective. Last Monday it joined others presenting a petition signed by 55,000 people to ban set net fishing in Māui habitat. The organisations’ ocean’s campaigner Jessica Drummond said their plan relies on complicated unproven methods.

“To give them any chance of survival as a species, action to protect them must take a precautionary approach, and it must be decisive and comprehensive. The proposal put forward today by Sanford is none of these.”

World Animal Protection’s spokesperson Christine Rose has a similar view, saying the methods put forward are unproven and reckless.

“The fishing companies hope their weak suggestions will head off additional protections for the endangered Māui and Hector’s dolphins. They are designed to protect fishing company profits, not dolphins.”

The International Whaling Commission and the International Society of Marine Mammalogy have both called for New Zealand to protect the dolphin’s habitat in water up to 100 metres deep.

The Endangered Species Foundation appears to be the lone conservation supporter of the WWF-NZ-backed option five. A spokesperson told Newsroom the foundation believes conservation works best when it’s supported by everyone. It does not receive funding from Sanford or Moana.

A final document based on the draft plan is due in October. 

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