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Commercial fishing practices under scrutiny as new regulations announced

23 January, 2024

Interview by Beth Torrance, adapted by Mahdhi Osman-Penrice

University of Otago Professor of Zoology, Liz Sooten, says mandating cameras on board is a step in the right direction, but that cameras will only ‘count the problem’ of commercial fishing bycatch.

Longline fishing boats in Aotearoa will soon require cameras on board, with the government investing $68 million to install them on up to 300 commercial fishing vessels.

This comes after calls for the government to ensure bycatch is properly reported.

University of Otago Professor of Zoology, Liz Sooten, told 95bFM’s The Wire that the term ‘bycatch’ downplays the harm knowingly caused to marine life.

“It’s a term that makes it sound slightly less serious that you’re killing marine mammals and seabirds.”

Sooten emphasises that commercial fisheries who use bulk fishing methods like gill nets and trolling know the risks involved to wildlife. 

“Some call it accidental catch or accidental bycatch. But it’s not truly accidental.”

“Before you put a gill net on the water, if there are dolphins, for example, in the area, you know you're going to be catching some dolphins. What you don't know is how many dolphins are going to be caught.”

She says species that are not profitable to bring back to shore, or are illegal because they are too small, are also usually dumped at sea.

To address this problem, Sooten says commercial fisheries should be using the most selective fishing methods available for the fish they are trying to catch.

“In Kaikōura, people are using doughnuts to catch groper (Hāpuku) and are catching quite a few dolphins. Everywhere else in the country, they use long-lines to catch groper and don't catch dolphins doing that.”

“It's a matter of using the right fishing gear in the right place.”

While Sooten says mandating cameras on board commercial fishing boats is a step in the right direction, that observers are in short supply, meaning vessels cannot be monitored 24 hours a day.

According to Sooten, until last year, very few boats had cameras monitoring bycatch levels. When more boats progressively started using cameras towards the end of 2023, six Māui dolphins were found to have been killed between late September and early January this year.

But she believes cameras will not be enough to save our native and endangered species, as under New Zealand law, it is legal to kill marine mammals and seabirds while fishing commercially, as long as it is recorded.

“We used to see only a very small tip of the iceberg. Now we can see a slightly bigger part of the iceberg, but it's still not enough to get a reliable estimate of how many dolphins are killed in fishing nets.”

“Cameras are a research tool. But they’re not a management tool. They're not going to solve the problem. They’re only going to count the problem.”

In recent years, attempts have been made to better protect dolphins in New Zealand, with the International Whaling Commission repeatedly calling for the killing of Māui dolphins to end as according to latest estimates, there are only 48 left. 

The non-profit environmental organisation, Sea Shepherd NZ, successfully brought a lawsuit to the US Court of International Trade in 2022, which banned the import of nine fish species caught in Māui Dolphin habitats.

“It’s not a good look for New Zealand to be killing endangered dolphins that are only found in New Zealand. A lot of consumers overseas will be very surprised to hear that, says Sooten.

“An economic or financial incentive to stop killing dolphins seems to be more effective than anything else that's happened so far.”

Sooten says in terms of monitoring and avoiding bycatch, that we are “halfway there”.

“Getting more face cameras on boats is really good, so the problem will become more obvious not only to MPI, who are estimating how many dolphins are killed, but also to the public.”

“It's not like no progress has been made, but it's very slow progress.”

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air