Māui dolphins are about the size of a 10-year old child. Photo: Martin Stanley | DOC

Ongoing drama surrounds the Māui and Hector’s dolphin threat management plan, with worries key information is not being made public promptly

The way costs were calculated for fishing bans to protect Māui and Hector’s dolphins is under review – but will go to Government ministers before the public is told.

If there’s fault with the numbers, it could mean all public submissions made on the threat management plan for the dolphins were based on inaccurate figures. 

Questions over the estimated financial impact on the fishery industry were raised by a peer review of Fisheries NZ’s economic methods by Market Economics economist Rodney Yeoman. In his view, methods used to calculate the economic impact are flawed and there are “major gaps” in the assessments.

He thinks the figures could have been overestimated by 10 times.

For one year, stopping set-netting in 14,600 square km off the west coast of the North Island, the draft plan estimates a reduction of total economic value of $16.8m.This is based on the lost revenue of what the fish sells for, as well as value from processing and supply.

Yeoman’s estimation of the value of the fishery is substantially lower, at $1.1m.

His peer review led to Fisheries NZ commissioning an independent review of their analysis by NZIER.

The Department of Conservation and Fisheries NZ is currently briefing ministers about the content of submissions, according to a spokesperson from Fisheries NZ.

“We can confirm that research from NZIER will form part of this advice. The information will be made public in due course, and once it has been considered by ministers.”

If public submissions have been made based on a proposal containing incorrect calculations, World Animal Protection’s Christine Rose thinks it calls the entire process into question. 

“Fisheries NZ say they intend to publish the results in ‘due course’ but due course would be in advance of advice being provided to ministers.”

She believes all stakeholders should have access to the NZIER review, and further submissions should be allowed in relation to it.

“It calls the process into question and increases the likelihood of a judicial review by the fishing industry and/or [environment groups] who can have little confidence that the process and protection recommendations are robust.”

With only 63 Māui dolphins remaining, the stakes are high for the sub-species. The threat management plan proposes human-induced deaths of Māui dolphins need to be reduced to as “near as practicable to zero”.

It hasn’t just been economists querying numbers. Scientists have disagreed with a calculation regarding the impact of toxoplasmosis on Māui dolphins. The plan estimates two Māui dolphin die each year due to the disease, making it more lethal to the species than commercial fishing. This was based on analysis of dead dolphins and interpreting what’s found in dead dolphins to what is happening with live dolphins.

The Government was cautioned against using this approach by an expert panel. It was not convinced the data should be modelled in that way because “the uncertainties and potential biases in these data are too large.

” … we are concerned that the results from the model could be seriously misleading. For this reason, we recommend that you ‘back off’ from forcing the model to produce conclusions which are supportable only when a series of questionable assumptions are made and which even then, are highly uncertain.”

The plan published for public submissions contained a small footnote under a table explaining the uncertainty.

A potential ban from the United States of fish caught in the Māui dolphin habitat has also been hanging over the process. This risk was included in a cabinet paper released with heavy redactions, but not included in the proposed plan.

The United States Marine Mammal Protection Act means seafood from countries that don’t prevent bycatch of marine mammals in line with US standards is banned from being imported into the country.

The Sea Shepherd organisation petitioned the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ban seafood caught in the Māui dolphins’ habitat. This would ban $2 million worth of product caught in the area. However, up to $200 million of seafood exports to the US could be at risk unless a traceability and certification programme is implemented. 

The day after the draft threat management plan was released, Sea Shepherd’s petition was rejected by the US. Sea Shepherd may appeal the rejection.

No date has been confirmed for decisions to be made regarding the plan.


February 6: Sea Shepherd petitions US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ban snapper and seafood caught in the area.

May: Briefing regarding the Sea Shepherd petition sent to Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

June 17: A proposed Threat Management Plan is released.

June 18: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejects Sea Shepherd’s petition for a ban.

June 18: Scientists question the proposal’s claim cat faeces pose a bigger threat to dolphins than commercial fishing.

July 9: Questions raised over the calculation of economic impact of set-net and trawl bans in dolphin habitat.

August 19: Submissions to the threat management plan close.

August 20: Fishing interests Sanford and Moana New Zealand, with WWF-New Zealand, propose an “option five”. This suggests an observation and move-on approach if dolphins are seen.

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