Set net ban to protect North Island Hector's dolphin

  • Pete Hodgson
Fisheries and Aquaculture

The Minister of Fisheries, Hon Pete Hodgson, has announced new management measures aimed at ensuring the survival of the critically endangered North Island Hector’s dolphin population.

All amateur and commercial set netting is to be prohibited within four nautical miles of the coast from Maunganui Bluff (north of Dargaville) to Pariokariwa Point (north of New Plymouth). The harbours are not included in the closed area.

A comprehensive observer programme will be implemented on all trawlers and Danish seine vessels fishing in the area closed to set netting.

"Available scientific information suggests there may be as few as 100 Hector’s dolphin left," Mr Hodgson said. "Modelling indicates that the population may eventually decline to extinction if the bycatch rate is more than one dolphin in a five year period. If we are going to save this species from extinction I see no realistic alternative to a ban on set netting in its habitat waters."

Mr Hodgson consulted Conservation Minister Sandra Lee on the proposed area closure, as required by the Fisheries Act, and received her support.

"Hector's dolphin is an endemic New Zealand species that is one of the world's rarest dolphins," Ms Lee said. "In December 1999 I declared it to be a threatened species under the provisions of the Marine Mammals Protection Act. The North Island population is genetically distinct from the South Island populations and is not known to interbreed with them. It would be a national tragedy if North Island Hector's dolphins vanished from the coastal waters they have inhabited for tens of thousands of years."

Three North Island Hector's dolphin have been found dead on beaches this year, two at Kariotahi Beach and one at Port Waikato. Pathology reports indicate that two of these deaths are likely to have been due to fishing. The third report was inconclusive due to the decomposition of the carcass. The Ministry of Fisheries considers that all three deaths are likely to have been due to set netting.

Mr Hodgson said he realised the ban on set netting would affect the livelihoods of some commercial fishers. The Ministry of Fisheries has estimated that up to 23 commercial fishers use set nets in the affected area, to varying degrees.

“With the North Island Hector’s dolphin population at a critically endangered level, I have to adopt a precautionary approach.
But I hope the affected fishers are able to restructure their operations so that they can continue fishing, either with other methods or in other areas.”

Mr Hodgson said that although there was relatively little recreational set netting on the open North Island West Coast outside the harbours, amateur set nets clearly had the potential to catch Hector’s dolphin and could not be exempted from the ban.

Trawling and Danish seining are likely to present a lower risk to Hector's dolphin, but more information is needed about the impact of these methods. Mr Hodgson said a comprehensive monitoring programme on trawlers and Danish seiners would be implemented by industry. The programme would include an independent observer on all trawl and Danish seine vessels operating within the 4 nautical mile restricted area. The 100 percent observer coverage would continue for five years.

The Ministry of Fisheries will conduct an annual review with stakeholders to assess the effectiveness of the observer programme.

North Island Hector’s dolphins are generally found within four nautical miles of the open exposed coastline. Mr Hodgson said at this stage he did not consider it necessary to close the area inside harbour entrances to set netting, as Hector's dolphin have rarely been sighted in harbour waters. More and better information is expected to become available in future on the extent to which the dolphins enter harbours. The protection measures will be reviewed if necessary in light of this information.

Mr Hodgson said he greatly appreciated the efforts made by many people to find a solution to the Hector's dolphin issue, including researchers, environmental organisations, and particularly the Northern Inshore Fishing Company, which ran its own consultation process.

“I hope the management measures we are now putting in place will ensure that the North Island Hector’s dolphin population is at a much reduced risk from the effects of fishing,” he said.

The closed area will take effect in September.

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