Revealed: Over 6000kg of protected corals and sponges trawled by commercial vessels in just 12 months

Official information obtained by Newshub shows more than 6000 kilograms of protected corals and sponges were pulled up by commercial trawl vessels in the space of just 12 months.

The data raises questions about reassurances from the commercial fishing industry that most of its trawling is done on muddy "featureless" sea floors.

Fragile and slow-growing, coral and sponges provide food and shelter for a vast variety of sea creatures.

But more than 6000kg of these protected animals were pulled up by bottom trawlers operating around New Zealand in the 12 months to May this year.

"It's a problem because these coral are incredibly rare, ancient species but they also support a whole host of other creatures in the deep. So when that coral is destroyed, that entire habitat goes with it," said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper.

Most of the coral was pulled up in two distinct fishing zones. Just over 2000 kilograms were hauled up in FMA 4, which incorporates the Chatham Rise off Banks Peninsula. And almost 3000 kilograms was caught in FMA 6 in the sub-Antarctic.

The fishing boats themselves report these catches and that official data also shows 67 kilograms of coral was caught in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park where Labour proposed bans on trawling in August.

"Certainly we never want to catch anything other than fish. So when we catch any protected species, we want to avoid that," Seafood NZ CEO Jeremy Helson said.

Helson isn't backing down on repeated public statements that most bottom trawling is on muddy, sandy grounds.

"I stand by the statement that most trawling happens on soft sediments, sands and muds. We do sometimes trawl in other areas and on occasion do catch corals and other species," he said.

Greenpeace believes that's just industry spin.

"I think it's incredibly misleading that the majority of trawling happens on a sandy seafloor. The data shows us year after year that thousands of kilograms of coral are being dragged up," Hooper said.

It's not just coral. Our official data shows in the past year, commercial vessels caught:

  • 250 fur seals
  • 411 albatross, including the critically endangered Antipodean albatross
  • 12 dolphins
  • A pilot whale, baleen whale and orca
  • 20 turtles, 16 of which were the critically-endangered leatherback

It's not illegal to catch protected species - but they must be reported.

Five instances of misreporting are currently being investigated, and it's anticipated the ongoing rollout of fixed cameras on the decks of boats will identify more issues.

"We are expecting a spike as we want that behavioural change to sort of embed, so there may be an increase but I'm pretty confident we can manage that," Fisheries NZ fisheries compliance director Steve Ham said.

Nelson commercial fisherman Dom Talijancich is taking even greater strides towards innovation in an effort to fish smarter.

He's trialling AI that detects what species enter the net underwater and transmits data to the skipper in real-time.

"It means that we can do more targeted fishing and less towing without knowing," he said.

He says it not only ensures they're catching target species, it'll also help avoid netting protected species like coral.