NEW squid fishing rules at the Auckland Islands, the main breeding site for vulnerable native sea lions, have been set but the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust has concerns they are not strict enough.
The new rules around the sub-antarctic islands were set to help the threatened species.
Fisheries New Zealand director of fisheries management Stuart Anderson said the sea lion’s conservation status was recently upgraded from Nationally Critical to Nationally Vulnerable, “to reflect signs of population recovery”.
However, the Department of Conservation’s (Doc) threat status for the species states, “endemic species, main breeding colony in decline’’.
New Zealand Sea Lion Trust chairwoman Jordana Whyte said during the past three years there was a near 300-pup decline in the Auckland Island population.
“There’s a drop there, the numbers are going down. There is no stability and there is no sign of recovery.”
A report published by Doc showed the decline.
In 1994/1995 there were 2206 live pups born on the islands; in 2004/2005 there were 2034 and in 2018/2019 there were 1612.
Commercial fishing in the Auckland Islands squid fishery (Squid 6T) was one of several threats to sea lions; disease and habitat loss were also big contributors.
Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs) can be used to allow sea lions to escape from fishing nets, and Mr Anderson said they were working.
He said the population decline rate at the Auckland Islands had slowed, while sea lion numbers were, “stable or increasing at most other breeding locations”.
“The most recent estimate of the total number of sea lions is 11,800.”
Under the new changes to the fishery operational plan, SLEDs would be mandatory, as well as a boost in observer coverage in the fishery, to a minimum of 90% of all fishing activity in the fishery having direct oversight from an on-board Government observer.
Ms Whyte agreed observer coverage was good progress, but was not so confident on the benefit of SLEDs as there were ‘‘too many question marks’’.
Mr Anderson said fishing was having a much lower impact than it did in the 1990s.
“It is estimated that on average fewer than four sea lions were killed in this fishery each year, which is estimated at less than a 1.5% impact on the population in the long term.”
The annual limit would be set to the amount of impact fishing could have before the fishery was automatically closed, which was 52 sea lions.
He said the limit gave them power to close the fishery immediately in a “worst case scenario”.
Ms Whyte said during the submission phase, the trust proposed 17% of the fishing area around the island be closed, specifically where there was an overlap of breeding females which foraged for food and squid fishing activity – which consequently would impact on the number of pups born.
Mr Anderson said Fisheries New Zealand was doing work to help protect sea lions including a tagging programme for Auckland Island sea lions to better understand changes in their distribution and where they foraged, developing total population estimates, and mapping foraging activity for South Island colonies.
Minister of Fisheries Stuart Nash decided on the changes after public consultation and support and advice from the Squid 6T Technical Advisory Group.
It is illegal for a fisher not to report the capture of a protected species, and is punishable by a fine not exceeding $100,000 under the Fisheries (Reporting) Regulations 2017.
It is also an offence under the Wildlife Act which is punishable by a fine not exceeding $10,000.
Mr Anderson said Fisheries New Zealand observers had been on board to verify reporting for more than 85% of trawl tows during the past five years, “giving us high confidence in the number of reported sea lion captures”.
The new measures will be in effect as part of the Squid 6T Operational Plan during the next four fishing years.