Government's shock mining exploration permit in Māui dolphin sanctuary

Government's shock mining exploration permit in Māui dolphin sanctuary
Photo credit: File

The Government has signed off on a mining exploration permit inside a Māui dolphin sanctuary - a decision the Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage told Newshub she's "very disappointed in."

The small Māui dolphin is unique to New Zealand, and is critically endangered. A recent count found just 63 individuals over one year of age remain.

The dolphins have limited habitat, and a sanctuary was set up to protect them along part of the west coast of the North Island.

Now a mining company have permission to explore 220km of the sanctuary off the coast of New Plymouth.

What you need to know:

  • There are about 60 Māui dolphins left in the world
  • A mining company has a permit to explore in a sanctuary protecting the dolphins
  • The sanctuary is home to other whales, dolphins and seals
  • The permit was granted by an arm of MBIE
  • DoC warned the Conservation Minister about the risk of mining in the area
  • Eugenie Sage raised concerns about the risk of seismic surveys on dolphins with Minister Megan Woods

The exploration permit was granted by the petroleum and mineral arm of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE). No resource consent was required by the Taranaki District Council.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) warned Conservation Minister Ms Sage of the impact if the company seeks an upgrade from exploration to mining in the area, documents released to Newsroom show.

"DoC has significant concerns about the risk commercial mining would pose to Māui dolphins in this area and would take a keen interest in a consent application," the briefing says.

Ngati Ruanui is questioning the Green Party's influence on the coalition Government.

"Green party leader James Shaw said this Government was ground-breaking because 'For the first time they'd have ministerial control' in the areas important to their party. Where is that control now?

"The overall influence on our eco-systems just is not worth it," Te Runanga o Ngati Ruanui Trust kaiarataki Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said.

The exploration permit has disappointed and surprised conservation group Greenpeace. Executive director Russel Norman told Newshub seabed mining is incredibly destructive to marine mammals because of the sediment it sends up.

Dr Norman said the Government needs to change the law immediately.

"The question is why hasn't the new Government intervened to stop it? It might be that the existing Government's hands are tied. If so they need to rapidly change the law," he told Newshub.

DoC told the Minister about the application but the Minister could not have done anything to prevent the permit being granted, a spokesperson for Minister Sage told Newshub.

The sanctuary protects Māui dolphins in three ways: it restricts the use of set nets, trawlers and drift nets; it requires DoC's notification before seismic surveys take place; and seabed mining is prohibited out to two nautical miles and to four nautical miles in some areas.

The area is also home to the humpback whale, New Zealand fur seal, blue whale, pilot whale, southern right whale, orca and common dolphin.

Ms Sage told Newshub she recognises Ngāti Ruanui's disappointment and is working on "short-comings" in the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

"Exploration is not mining, but I am really disappointed MBIE granted the permit," Ms Sage told Newshub. "If it came across my desk I would not have approved it."

She said she'd written to Minister for Energy and Resources Megan Woods to raise concerns about the risk of seismic surveys posed to marine animals.