Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

University of Otago research finds consistent under-reporting of sea-lion bycatch

Clocktower reflected in the Centre for Innovation

Tuesday 22 May 2012 10:06am

New Zealand Sea Lion and pupSea lion mother and pup
Image by Elaine Leung

Ministry of Primary Industries data on self-reporting of sea lion deaths by those involved in the arrow squid fishery paint a grim picture of more than a decade of non-compliance with New Zealand law designed to protect marine mammal populations, new University of Otago research suggests.

University of Otago Zoologist and sea lion expert Dr Bruce Robertson says the Government has prosecuted no-one, despite this apparent level of offending.

He requested the self-reporting data under the Official Information Act to investigate the level of compliance when it comes to reporting marine mammal deaths of the predominantly foreign chartered fishing vessels (FCVs) working the Auckland Islands arrow squid fishery.

“A recent joint Ministerial Inquiry into the practices of these foreign vessels in NZ waters uncovered a number of alleged serious instances of non-compliance with New Zealand law.” Dr Robertson said.

“With more than 90 percent of fishing effort in the Auckland Islands arrow squid fishery done by foreign vessels and much of this effort going unmonitored by the government’s observer programme (only 35 percent of fishing effort is observed per annum) I wanted to see if self-reporting of sea lion deaths was occurring, as is required by the Marine Mammals Protection Act.”

Dr Robertson plans to publish the new research, but felt that his findings needed urgent public attention.

Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act (1978) it is not an offence to accidentally kill a marine mammal during the course of fishing, so long as the incident is reported to the government. Failure to report marine mammal by-catch in fishing constitutes an offence against the Act and penalties range from imprisonment and/or a$250,000 fine to forfeiture of fishing gear.

Dr Robertson says that the government’s data shows clearly that when unmonitored, fishers are not reporting a similar number of sea lion deaths as government observers are.

“For example, in 2004 government observers recorded 21 sea lion deaths when observing 15 percent of the fishing effort. At this rate of capture, we should expect to see around 112 sea lion deaths reported by fishers for the remaining 85% of unmonitored fishing effort. Government data shows only five sea lion deaths were self-reported by fishers in 2004.”

“This was not an unusual year. Over the past decade, an average of 2.5 sea lion deaths has been reported by vessels fishing in the Auckland Islands arrow squid fishery per year, when realistically we should have expected an average of 33.8 deaths reported.”

Dr Robertson says that offences against New Zealand law are “very concerning”.

“Perhaps more concerning, from a conservation perspective, is the high level of faith the government has placed in the foreign chartered fishing vessels to carry out their sea lion management plans aimed at minimising deaths of sea lions in the squid fishery,” he says.

Sea lions are a Nationally Critical species – at the same threat level as kakapo – and have declined by over 50% since 1998. Recent government research suggests that fishing bycatch has played a key role in this decline.

“With so much of the fishing effort going unmonitored and non-compliance with regulations seemingly widespread, serious questions need to be asked whether the government’s management plans for sea lion by-catch mitigation are being adhered to.

“The nation has spent millions of dollars on managing sea lion deaths in the arrow squid fishing around the Sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands and might well be failing at the last hurdle – the execution of these plans.”

For further information, contact

Dr Bruce Robertson
Senior lecturer
Department of Zoology
Tel 64 3 479 4110

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

Electronic addresses (including email accounts, instant messaging services, or telephone accounts) published on this page are for the sole purpose of contact with the individuals concerned, in their capacity as officers, employees or students of the University of Otago, or their respective organisation. Publication of any such electronic address is not to be taken as consent to receive unsolicited commercial electronic messages by the address holder.