A proposed update to the Māui and Hector’s dolphin Threat Management Plan sets new set-netting and trawling bans around key areas, but conservationists point to gaps that could put threatened dolphins in danger.

After several months of delays, a proposal to improve protection for Hector’s and Māui dolphins has been released to mixed reviews.

Its release comes after a lawsuit was filed May 22 in the United States calling for an import ban on New Zealand seafood caught in the threatened dolphin’s habitat due to New Zealand’s protection laws for marine mammals not being as stringent as those in the US.

There are around 63 Māui dolphins and about 15,000 Hector’s dolphins remaining.

Minister of Fisheries Stuart Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage downplayed the lawsuit’s influence on the overdue plan’s finalisation when they announced it yesterday. 

“What we’ve got here is a comprehensive review of this plan that’s been under way for a number of months … the science has been internationally peer reviewed, that had nothing to do with it.”

Sage said the lawsuit filed on behalf of Sea Shepherd New Zealand “is a recognition internationally about the significance of Maui dolphin”.

“We don’t want them to go the way of the Vaquita dolphin, that’s why the Government has acted to protect Maui dolphins.”

The possibility of a ban had caused some concern previously. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva reported on documents released under the Official Information Act showing fears about a potential ban reached the Prime Minister’s office and led to a flurry of activity.

Yesterday Nash said the prospect of losing the lawsuit, which could cost New Zealand up to $200 million in seafood exports a year, was “an issue for another day”.

The announced updates to the Threat Management Plan include new areas closed to set-netting and trawling and extensions of existing closed areas.

Other methods of fishing that don’t pose as great of a danger to the dolphins are still allowed in areas closed to set-netting and trawling, and there will be government support to help fishers transition to new methods, Nash said.

“The changes will affect some fishing operators who work these waters. The decisions are not taken lightly and I acknowledge there will be questions about some operations. A targeted transitional support package is being established to help and incentivise fishing operators adapt to the new restrictions.”

The transitional fund could be used by fishers to move to another fishing area, or to exit the industry.

Among the non-fishing-related dolphin protection measures announced is a doubling of marine mammal protection areas and a prohibition on new permits for seabed mining and seismic surveying in these areas. Existing permits are unaffected, but a code of conduct would be mandatory.

A toxoplasmosis action plan will also be rolled out. This is a disease from cat droppings that affects dolphins. 

The public has until July 21 to comment on the proposals before they are finalised. Implementation is expected by October.

What’s in the plan

Grasping what’s in the plan is tricky as it doesn’t neatly align with four options initially put forward in a consultation document. The four options covered set-netting and trawling in the North and South Island, with option one being the status quo and option four having the greatest change to current fishing activity. 

What was announced yesterday could be said to sit around option three.

For the North Island, changes include new set-net closures out to four nautical miles offshore between Cape Reinga and Maunganui Bluff, and between Hawera and Wellington. 

Areas already closed will increase. This includes Maunganui Bluff and the Waiwhakaiho River (New Plymouth) from 7 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles offshore, as well as between the Waiwhakaiho River and Hawera from 2 nautical miles to 7 nautical miles offshore.

Set-net closures within the Manukau Harbour will be extended to Taumatarea Point in the north and Matakawau Point in the south within the harbour.

Set-Netting Left: Various options put forward for public consultation. Right: Proposed changes. The dark blue line is existing closed areas and the orange is new closures.
Trawling Left: Various options put forward for public consultation. Right: Proposed changes. The dark blue line is existing closed areas and the orange is new closures

South Island changes include new set net closures to 4 nautical miles offshore within Golden and Tasman Bay, and from Farewell Spit to Cape Soucis. 

In other places currently closed, areas would be extended to between 4 and 19 nautical miles offshore. There are no closures to trawling proposed for the South Island but the need for consultation is mentioned. Collaborative and “innovative” approaches will be focused on, which may include Crown-funded cameras on boats. 

South Island set-netting closures. The dark blue line is existing closed areas and the orange is new closures. 

Reaction to the plan

Seafood NZ’s chief executive Jeremy Helson called the Government’s approach “risk-averse”.

“It is also a decision that has serious implications for the livelihoods of fishers and their families, many of whom are small inshore fishermen. While we welcome mention of a financial package to help those affected, we are concerned there is no detail of exactly who that will help and how.” 

He said he would be taking time to examine the details of the plan and assess its impact.

Conservationists gave a mixed response. Some measures were welcomed, while others were felt to be missing. 

Greenpeace called the proposals “promising but not transformational”, saying there were areas where the plan fell short.

“Powers to add additional regulation if a dolphin is killed sounds impressive, but with only around 63 Māui dolphins left, even one killed is already too many. We can’t take back extinction, once they’re gone, that’s it,” said oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond.

The power to add regulation is at a minister’s discretion, the new regulation will allow regulations to be added, but not impose them.

Forest & Bird spokesperson Geoff Keey also raised the issue of water depth and said the plan needed more work. 

“Expanded restrictions on set netting are welcome, but for dolphins to survive and flourish they need to be protected from trawling and set netting out to 100m depth thoughout their range.” 

He also said major gaps in protection remained in the South Island, and describes the plan as having loopholes that need plugging.

“Seismic surveys and other activities related to oil, gas and other marine mining activities have no place in the dolphins’ habitat. Exempting the current 21 oil and gas permit holders from the ban in Māui dolphin habitat means the ban won’t really start until 2046 … This is a major loophole. Māui dolphins could be extinct before the ban even takes effect.”

Straterra, a mining industry body, said it opposes an “ideological crack-down” on new permit seismic surveying and would prefer a case-by-case approach to a blanket ban.

World Animal Protection commissioned a peer review of the economic modelling used in the consultation document to show the economic impact of fishing closures. This peer review found the impact had overestimated by 10 times, prompting an independent review by NZIER which has to-date been kept under wraps. The NZIER review may be released as part of a bundle of documents next week. 

Campaign advisor Christine Rose dryly noted internet cables appear to have more protection than dolphins in maps released showing no fishing areas where cables are.

“Effectively, the Government have decided Netflix streaming is more important than the Kiwis of the sea.”

She thinks the plan will delay but not avert extinction.

“While some dolphin populations are given better protection under the plan, others, such as the South Island Otago population, have been completely abandoned, which is not enough to protect the fragile population of these dolphins. Especially given those subpopulations have as few as 40 individuals, so are even more rare than the Māui dolphin.”

Sea Shepherd New Zealand’s managing director Michael Lawry said the proposals announced yesterday did not change the decision to progress the US lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, like previous threat management plans, it fails to go far enough and does not follow the advice of international experts about what is needed to save the Māui dolphin.”


February 6 2019: Sea Shepherd petitions US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ban snapper and seafood caught in the area.

May 6 2019: 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 7 2019: Government announces all commercial fishing boats at risk of encountering Māui dolphins would be required to have on-board cameras

June 17 2019: A proposed Threat Management Plan is released.

June 18 2019: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejects Sea Shepherd’s petition for a ban.

June 18 2019: Scientists question the proposal’s claim cat faeces pose a bigger threat to dolphins than commercial fishing.

July 9 2019: Questions raised over the calculation of economic impact of set-net and trawl bans in dolphin habitat.

August 19 2019: Submissions to the threat management plan close.

August 20 2019: 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.

September 2019: Full page advertisements are published in the Dominion Post by Seafood NZ. Communications staff call these justified.

November 1 2019: Deadline for boats fishing in Māui habitat to have on-board cameras. Fourteen of 20 boats intending to fish in the area had cameras.

November 11 2019: The Department of Conservation releases information from acoustic monitoring that suggests dolphins are regularly present in the coastal waters of Tongaporutu, Taranaki, and visit as far south as Tapuae. It said it was determining whether further management options were needed as part of the review of the Hector’s and Māui dolphin Threat Management Plan.

Dec 19 2019: Government announces delay to a decision on plan. No new deadline is given.

May 22 2020: Lawsuit filed in the United States.

June 24 2020: Proposed plan updates released with further submissions open until July 21.

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