20 Nov 2019

Seabird conservation plan not tough enough, says advocates

7:21 am on 20 November 2019

A government plan to save thousands of seabirds from being killed by the fishing industry each year has been called weak and ineffective.

yellow-eyed penguin new zealand

The yellow-eyed penguin is thought to be the rarest penguin in the world, and is under threat. Photo: 123rf.com

The action plan details what fishers should do to avoid hooking endangered seabirds, but Forest & Bird said there were no penalties for not following the rules.

Aotearoa is home to 145 species of seabird, 95 of which also breed here. About 90 percent of those that do breed in New Zealand are either threatened or at risk of extinction.

The hoiho - which recently won Bird of the Year - is one of those. The yellow-eyed penguin is thought to be the rarest penguin in the world, found only in New Zealand. Its status is nationally endangered.

Last year, between 3000 and 14,000 seabirds were killed by the fishing industry. The reason for the wide margin is because the actual number is not recorded.

The Action Plan is designed to reduce this number and eventually reach a goal of no deaths at all - although it gives no timeframe for this.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said the plan put forward real solutions, some of which could be picked up easily by fishers.

"No fisher wants to catch a seabird," she said, "but there are simple measures people can put in place to reduce the risk of that, such as not fishing on a moonlit night.

"One of the measures is a plastic device, which shields the hook and releases when the hook is at depth to reduce the risk of seabirds going for the bait and then getting hooked."

Hook shielding devices are still relatively new, but the government is distributing 4000 of them it purchased last year.

They encase the point and barb of longline hooks, but then release the point either when it reaches a certain depth, or when it has been submerged for long enough.

Still no cameras, penalties

The plan also outlines specific standards for each type of fishing vessel to reduce bycatch.

For example, restrictions on small trawlers dumping fish waste overboard aim to stop attracting seabirds to the boats.

Other proposed practices include fishing at night, and avoiding areas known to be well populated with seabirds.

Sue Maturin from Forest & Bird said there were no penalties for flouting the rules.

"If this plan is to be successful, then it really needs to require our fishers to use the world's best practice methods, to avoid bycatch.

"And there needs to be consequences for non-compliance. There has to be an incentive for fishers to put a huge effort into avoiding bycatch."

She used Australia as an example, where cameras or observers onboard fishing boats resulted in a dramatic rise in reported seabird bycatch.

"As soon as we've got a camera on boat, they do record them on logbooks, so they are reported.

"Then we can start to get some accurate data, and we can also get some accurate data on what mitigations are being used."

Twenty-eight boats that fish off the North Island's west coast must now have cameras to monitor the impact on the endangered Maui dolphins.

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash has previously said an industry-wide rollout would take some time.

Last year the Ministry said there were 100 observers doing 9000 days of inspection across the entire fishing fleet.

Jeremy Helson, from the inshore fishing industry, said fishers were keen to help fix the problem of seabird deaths.

"We're aware that some of our practices increase risks at certain times of the day, at certain times of night, in certain areas.

"We're happy to try and tailor the way we fish to try and reduce those risks and this plan helps us formulate ways to do that better."

The plan does not ban fishing methods like set nets, which Penguin Biologist Professor John Cockrem said was one of the biggest threats to seabirds like the Hoiho.

"We really are at a stage with the hoiho - like the kākāpō - where every bird counts, Prof Cockrem said.

"So even one hoiho caught in a net is something that in terms of conservation of the species would be better if it didn't happen."

The plan is now open for public submissions until 27 January.

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