Government cracks down on fishing activities to protect New Zealand's rare dolphins

A raft of new protections for New Zealand's rare dolphins have been announced, including sweeping new restrictions for those fishing in their habitats.

Your playlist will load after this ad

At least 26 Hector’s dolphins and one Māui dolphin have been killed by fisheries since 2012. Source: 1 NEWS / Harbers Family Foundation

There are only about 63 Māui dolphins left, and about 15,000 Hector's dolphins.

Drift netting will be banned entirely around the country, current set-net closures will be extended and new areas closed to set-netting will be created as part of the newly-announced measures.

An existing area which is closed to trawling, off the North Island's West Coast, will also be extended.

As well as those measures, if a single dolphin is caught in the Māui dolphin habitat off the West Coast, the Fisheries Minister will be able to "act immediately to impose further restrictions".

The new measures will take effect from October 1.

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash says it doesn't have to mean the end for fishing vessels, which will be able to keep going so long as they move to different methods.

"Fishing activities and the disease toxoplasmosis pose the biggest threats to Hector’s and Māui dolphins," he said.

"The changes will significantly increase fishing restrictions in dolphin habitats, focusing on methods with the highest potential to affect dolphins."

The Government is planning a targeted transitional support package "to help and incentivise fishing operators adapt to the new restrictions", Mr Nash says.

"Livelihoods can be protected if new methods are adopted."

More protections include doubling the marine mammal protection areas across the West Coast and Bay of Islands, forbidding new permits for seabed mining and seismic surveying in those areas, and banning seabed mining in Te Rohe o Te Whānau Puha Whale Sanctuary area off Kaikōura.

An action plan for toxoplasmosis, another major threat to New Zealand's dolphins, will also be rolled out, Mr Nash says.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says they're planning to closely monitor the new measures to make sure the threatened dolphins can be kept safe.

"These precious marine mammals are New Zealand’s taonga and we need to act now to ensure they are there for future generations," she says.


Jeremy Helson, chief executive of Seafood New Zealand, says they're concerned about the lack of detail on how fishers will be impacted by the changes.

"This is a very risk averse approach by the Government. It is also a decision that has serious implications for the livelihoods of fishers and their families, many of whom are small inshore fishermen," he told 1 NEWS.

"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. 

"We will be taking some time to examine the detail of the decision and assess the full extent of the effects it will have on our people, the supply of fish to New Zealanders, and what this will mean for the wider inshore fishing industry in New Zealand."


Sea Shepherd New Zealand Managing Director Michael Lawry said he couldn't comment in detail on the measures, as Sea Shepherd is still involved in a court case surrounding the protections of New Zealand marine mammals.

However, he did say that "unfortunately, like previous 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".

Greenpeace called the new plan "promising, but not transformational", with oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond saying "it's really positive to see the extension to set-net fishing restrictions down the whole of the West Coast of the North Island, some areas where there were previously no restrictions, and that some of these are out to the 12 nautical mile limit. Science tells us that this is the level of protection needed.

"In several areas the restrictions fall short of the 12 nautical mile limit, this means there will still be risky fishing in Māui dolphin habitat. It also makes it unnecessarily complicated to administer and understand.

"In the South Island there are limited additional protections for Hector’s dolphins, and crucial subpopulations - this leaves them in the precarious position and the potential for a slow march towards extinction.

"Powers to add additional regulation if a dolphin is killed sounds impressive, but with only around 63 Maui dolphins left, even one killed is already too many.

"We can’t take back extinction, once they’re gone, that’s it.

"Cameras on the entire fleet of commercial fishing vessels is an essential step to protecting all marine life in Aotearoa, but as the Government has repeatedly stalled on this, we’ll believe cameras on boats when we see them."

Professor Elisabeth Slooten of University of Otago's Department of Zoology that that "what's needed is consistent protection for these dolphins, throughout their range, from gillnet and trawl fisheries.

"For Māui dolphins in the North Island, that means all the way around to East Cape - Hector's dolphins need protection all around the South Island, except for Fiordland.

"One consistent distance from shore - or better still, water depth - is needed as an offshore boundary for these protection measures to be effective.

"The IWC has recommended 20 nautical miles offshore - the IUCN recommends all waters less than 100 metres deep.

"That's the only way to protect the smallest, most vulnerable dolphin populations around both the North and South Islands.

"With the proposed protection measures, what’s likely to happen is that we will lose the dolphins on the east coast of the North Island, and from areas like Otago and the Catlins."