New fishing measures introduced to protect Hector's and Māui dolphins

New protections were introduced on Wednesday to protect Hector's and Māui dolphins from threats posed by fishing vessels.

There are around 15,000 Hector's dolphins in the wild, though the Māui is critically endangered, with only 63 dolphins over the age of one remaining, according to the Department of Conservation.

The new fishing measures will come into effect on October 1 and include:

  • A nationwide ban on drift netting
  • An extension of current set-net closures, and the creation of new areas closed to set-netting, in the North and South Islands
  • An extension of the existing area closed to trawling off the west coast of the north Island
  • A change to the regulations allowing the Minister to act immediately to impose further restrictions if a single dolphin is caught in the Māui dolphin habitat within the west coast of the North Island.

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash said the new rules would "significantly increase fishing restrictions in dolphin habitats, focusing on methods with the highest potential to affect dolphins".

"However I want to be clear that fishing vessels will be able to keep fishing if they move to different methods. There is new support from Government to help them make that transition."

Along with the disease toxoplasmosis, fishing activities pose the greatest threat to the mammals, 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," Nash said.

He said the support package would include ex gratia payments and free and independent business advice. It would be available for commercial fishers and Licenced Fish Receivers. 

"The transitional support will also help meet the cost of converting boats from set net or trawl to other fishing methods that have less of a known impact on the dolphins. The funds may also be used for moving to another fishing area, or to exit the industry completely if that is the most appropriate option."

Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage said the "vulnerable" dolphins were "previous marine mammals for New Zealand's taonga".

"We need to act now to ensure they are there for future generations," Sage said.

Wednesday's announcement also introduced a raft of non-fishing-related measures, including:

  • Doubling marine mammal protection areas across the west coast of the north Island and around the Banks Peninsula to 37,286 km2 of protected areas
  • Reducing the risks from seismic surveying and seabed mining by prohibiting new permits in the expanded marine mammal protection areas and making the a code of conduct for existing activities mandatory in those areas
  • Seabed mining will also be prohibited in the Te Rohe o Te Whānau Puha Whale Sanctuary area off Kaikōura
  • Rolling out a toxoplasmosis action plan.

Greenpeace said the new measures were "promising, but not transformational".

"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," said Jessica Desmond, Greenpeace's oceans campaigner. 

But Desmond said the new plan fell short in some areas, creating unnecessary complications.

"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," she said.

"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."

She said Greenpeace was calling for cameras to be put on all commercial fishing vessels to better protect the dolphins.