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Sunday, 29 July 2012

Maui's sea change

The laws are in, the search has started and the wait is on to find Taranaki's first official Maui's dolphin.
Setting a net within 3.7km of shore between Tongaporutu and Hawera is now banned and government observers will keep vigilant watch on commercial fishing boats harvesting outside that limit.
Their eyes and the inshore net restrictions are part of a plan to prevent the critically endangered Maui's dolphins slipping into an internationally embarrassing modern day extinction. 
The expected cost to this plan is likely to be paid by New Plymouth's fishing fleet whose captains have long maintained the Maui's doesn't live in Taranaki waters.
Their protests have not stopped them being forced from their most valuable fishing grounds and into a future as uncertain as the 55 dolphins in whose name their livelihood may be sacrificed.
Lyttleton fisherman Tony Threadwell has seen fishermen driven from the industry before. The port town's last set netter packed up and left four years ago, unable to make a buck amid the netting restrictions in place to protect the South Island's relatively abundant Hector's Dolphin - Maui's identical looking cousin.
''It's fair to draw comparison to here and what is happening in Taranaki,'' Mr Threadwell says.
''Because there are no set netters left here. End of story. There are none left.
''The ban here wasn't the only thing to blame but there is no doubt it was part of it. That took away some valuable fishing grounds.''
Where others see loss Labour Party environment watchdog Ruth Dyson sees opportunity. To her the argument is more than 55 dolphins, a relative handful of New Plymouth fishermen, and wildly varying figures on how much it will cost the Taranaki economy.
She sees international eyes watching and a government falling short at every turn.
''It's a lose lose in a way. No one is winning out of this let alone the dolphin. I suggested that supporting the industry to move to a sustainable fishing practice would be a win win.
''We would be able to say New Zealand fishing industry is moving towards sustainable practices supported by the government. It would be a really great marketing tool.''
A marketing tool that would also ward off the possibility of a boycott of New Zealand fish in  protest against a government not going far enough to protect the world's rarest dolphin.
''We have already seen the air miles rubbish when someone in the UK calculated our air miles like we were putting all our stuff on a plane and didn't realise we shipped it over.
''International incidents can quickly arise and just as quickly damage exports.''
New Plymouth fishing boat captain Ian McDougall throws a smoker's laugh at the threat of an international boycott.
'That's what we are being told is going to happen,'' he says.
''But at the same time I say why are we going to shut down a huge area of ocean for an unknown number of dolphins, which I believe will be zero.''
That certainty comes despite Mr McDougall being responsible for killing what could have been a Maui's dolphin in his net in January. At the time he was legally required to return the dolphin to the sea so it will never be known if it was a Maui's or a north venturing Hector's.

Regardless the death was marked as the third Maui's to die in nets in the last 10 years and sparked the current ban until a more permanent solution is decided upon in November. 
The uncertainty around what those permanent measures might be is consistent with everything else to do with the Maui's. How many are there really, where do they range, can they interbreed with Hector's, are there man-made reasons behind their slow propagation rate.
Scott Gallacher of the Ministry for Primary Industries is hoping at least some of that knowledge will be gained in the coming months.
''There is some information we have certainty on. We've been quite honest. In terms of distribution the possibility of a Maui's dolphin venturing into Taranaki waters is rare and infrequent.
''Ultimately we are dealing with a lot of uncertain questions. The key going forward is to use the observer programme to start filling in the gaps.''
That observer programme will see at least four people on the water most days dedicated to looking for Maui's dolphins. Add to this regular Department of Conservation surveys and a campaign to get the public involved and if the gaps can't be filled in the next six months it's probable they never will.
For Keith Mawson of fish processors Egmont Seafoods the lack of facts is particularly galling as they are still enough for restrictions that will cost him large quantities of fish and potentially tip a teetering balance sheet into the red.
''Environmentalists have an agenda to remove set setting from coastal areas and the vehicle they are doing that with is the Maui's dolphin,'' he claims.
As the owner of $2million in fishing quota and factory to process what other fishermen catch his is a view easily dismissed as clouded by vested interest. But Mr Mawson is careful to talk in facts, drawing each carefully from official sources.
Such as quoting a Ministry of Primary Industries paper stating the most southern sighting of Maui's dolphin confirmed through biopsy is north of Raglan, hundreds of kilometres from where Taranaki fishermen roam.
Representing 15 iwi from Mokau to Waikanae Sam Tamarapa knows the set net ban could impact Maori most.
Though nets can still be used under customary fishing rights Maori are unlikely to condone the practice and with less food will also come less money. As commercial fisherman will no longer able to use their most easily accessible and abundant fishing grounds to target rig and warehou hundreds of thousands of dollars could be wiped off the value of Taranaki fishing quota. Maori hold as much as 50 per cent of that quota.
''But if there is a genuine and viable plan to rebuild these dolphins then we will support what needs to be done,'' the ex fisheries officer says.
''Of course it could be this particular species has declined so much it doesn't matter what we do.''

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