Study finds set nets a major danger to rare New Zealand penguins

A Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), aka Hoiho, listed by the IUCN as Endangered, emerges from the ocean at Curio Bay, New Zealand and rests before proceeding to its nest at sunset
Photo credit: Getty

A new global study has found set nets pose a major danger to New Zealand penguins.

The study, with input from University of Otago scientists, found the nets were severely impacting hoiho/yellow-eyed penguins, which featured on our $5 notes.

The nets are walls of fine mesh that catche fish by the gills, and are used by recreational fishers and 330 commercial boats in New Zealand waters.

"Diving birds, like penguins, are unable to see the fine mesh underwater, and become entangled and drown," said New Zealand penguin scientist Dr Ursula Ellenberg.

"In the past 20 years, yellow-eyed penguins have declined by 76 percent at previous population strongholds. We have reached the point where every bird counts."

With only 246 breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins remaining in the South Island, researchers are now calling for governmental action on set nets.

A recent Ministry for Primary Industries investigation recommended introducing fisheries observers on boats, video monitoring of bycatch and managing set nets in important penguin foraging areas.

For penguin advocates, the changes to set net procedures are most important.

"We welcome the proposed introduction of video surveillance on fishing boats as an important step in monitoring and reducing bycatch," said Forest and Bird seabird advocate Karen Baird.

"But for the yellow-eyed penguin, the situation is so urgent that we also need to immediately establish set net closures in important yellow-eyed penguin foraging areas."

An MPI spokesperson said in a statement the Ministry is committed to managing the impact of fishing on all seabirds, including yellow-eyed penguins.

"We have already increased observation of set net fishing in the range of the Whenua Hou population, and most of the mainland yellow-eyed penguins. Over the past 12 months we have observed 25 percent of all commercial set net activity off Southland and the southern part of the East Coast, with no observed captures of yellow-eyed penguins.

"Set netting within four nautical miles of land is already prohibited in much of the Southland Fisheries Management Area. Approximately 75 percent of the yellow-eyed penguin population live in areas like the Auckland Islands, where there is no set net fishing at all. We are working with the Department of Conservation, fishers, and NGOs to understand the impact of fishing and other risks for this iconic species. This includes setting up a comprehensive research programme focused on fishing risks. That will help us understand what impact fishing might be having, and identify ways to reduce it."

Seafood New Zealand has also responsded to Dr Ellenburg's research.

A spokesperson told Newshub that the research does not conclude that fishing is a major cause of yellow-eyed penguin deaths.

"It says there are many threats to the species including climate change, habitat degradation, disease and predation. However it does say that, of any threat caused by fishing, set nets are causing the most deaths."

The company agrees that fishing does pose some risk to yellow-eyed penguins, and said the industry is "happy to discuss what measures can be implemented to assist further".

"It is also important to note that government observers last year focussed their effort on these set net fisheries, and with approximately 40 percent of observer coverage in yellow-eyed penguin habitat (the east and south coasts of the South Island) no captures of yellow-eyed penguins were recorded."