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Protection Of South Pacific Cetaceans

Speech Notes

Speech notes for Hon Sandra Lee
Minister of Conservation

the Whale and Dolphin Adoption Project meeting,
Auckland Museum
14 March 2001

Thank you for inviting me here this evening.

I want to take this opportunity to also thank you for arranging my adoption of a female South Pacific humpback whale known as Konga hiku or 'Half Tail'. I have whangai'd, or fostered, many youngsters during my time, but Konga hiku rates as the largest and the most unusual!

Tonight's gathering is one of the highlights of Sea Week, which is supported by the Department of Conservation each year.

The week began with a 'wacko' suggestion by a visiting Australian scientist involving the eating of one of our other endangered species, the Kiwi, for 'Sunday lunch'.

ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff also chipped in to say that he had already come up with a recipe for grilled Kiwi, but he wouldn’t tell TV3 News about it because it was secret.

As we all know, in some parts of the world people already eat whale meat for Sunday lunch thanks to so-called 'scientific research' whaling.

But no one would suggest that the problem of various whale species being threatened with extinction has been solved.

The protection of whales and dolphins has become a touchstone for many people, an indication of how well we can act as kaitiaki or guardians for our oceans

It is also a measure of our commitment as humans to sharing the planet with its remaining wildlife.

Over the last two centuries, the whaling industries of many countries, including our own, reduced the populations of great whales in the South Pacific region to pitiful remnants.

The government is committed to the establishment of a Whale Sanctuary in the South Pacific, to provide permanent protection for the remaining whales of the region.

Despite the importance of our trading relationship with Japan, this government has been robust in its criticism of the so-called 'research whaling' programme that this year has resulted in the killing of minke whales in the Ross Sea.

I know that the majority of New Zealanders support our actions, precisely because whales are such an icon species.

Grass roots volunteer organisations like yours are at the heart of a successful domestic conservation programme. You have certainly found a willing audience with the Whale and Dolphin Adoption Project. I commend you for your efforts to stimulate public interest in our region's marine mammals, and to raise much needed funding for marine researchers, education and conservation.

I would like to provide you with my perspective on the protection of cetaceans in our seas by talking briefly about each of the species that are available for adoption.

It’s good to start off with an encouraging story.

Southern right whales were reduced to near extinction around New Zealand (and indeed around the world) in the 19th Century.

The total global population probably got as low as 500 in the 1920s. Despite the illegal take of over 3,000 right whales in the 1950s, the population seems to be recovering, and may now be almost 8,000 animals. Several hundred of these now breed in the sub-antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands.

New Zealand and my own Ngai Tahu iwi can count themselves exceptionally fortunate to have sperm whales all year round right on the doorstep at Kaikoura.

Their predictable presence and tolerance of boats has provided a tourist bonanza not just for Kaikoura, but also for the entire country.

The uplifted sperm whale’s tail, set against the snow-capped peaks of the Seaward Kaikouras, has become one of this country’s most frequently used images in our overseas marketing.

Although the commercial whaling industry in this country collapsed almost forty years ago, humpback whales are still rarely seen in New Zealand waters.

However, our seas were only a part of the migratory route from Antarctic feeding grounds to tropical breeding grounds.

It’s pleasing to learn that Auckland University has become the focal point for a great deal of the research being carried out on humpbacks in the South Pacific, and that Massey University has conducted some extremely valuable work on the value of humpback whales as a tourist resource to Tonga.
I held talks in Tonga recently with local political leaders on the issues of whale watching and the South Pacific whale sanctuary. I was pleased at the high level support in Tonga for the proposal. At the political level, I am committed to doing all that I can to protect and enhance the growth of the fragile humpback populations of the region.

The government is investing considerable effort towards securing permanent protection of breeding areas for humpbacks and all the other great whales in the region, through the establishment of the South Pacific whale sanctuary. It makes good sense to New Zealand that the great whales should be protected in their pacific breeding grounds as well as their Southern Ocean feeding grounds (where they are already covered by the South Ocean whale sanctuary).

In November last year, the Prime Minister made an offer to the Pacific Islands Forum for New Zealand to convene a meeting to progress the sanctuary proposal, and to develop a strategy for its establishment. This consultation will be held in Samoa next month, and I will lead the New Zealand delegation there.

I will be sharing with my regional counterparts the latest scientific information supporting the need for a sanctuary as well as data on the economic benefits of whale watching activities, as an alternative to whale hunting. Some 87-countries now operate whale watching enterprises, and their global earnings top $2-billion a year.

I hope the Apia talks will agree on how existing national and regional whale conservation initiatives can be linked with the Sanctuary proposal, which I will put when the International Whaling Commission meets in London later this year.

Turning now to the whales’ smaller cousins, the dolphins:

Traditionally, of course, most people (other than sailors) had their dolphin encounters in theme parks where captive dolphins performed routines for the entertainment of paying customers. However that situation has changed dramatically in New Zealand over the past ten years. We now have over 40 tourism operators, from the Bay of Islands to Southland, who specialise in taking passengers to view and interact with wild dolphins.

In a 1996 survey of incoming visitors, Tourism New Zealand established that 8% hoped to see or swim with wild dolphins during their visit. This surely is a more constructive and rewarding experience than seeing captive dolphins perform tricks in a concrete tank. Indeed, in my opinion, the days of performing captive dolphins in New Zealand are all but over, as we move into a new era of economic benefit based on encountering dolphins in the wild.

There is also some community concern about the potential impacts of fishing activities on dolphin populations. I am very worried about the accidental capture of Hector's dolphins in fishing nets—and I will talk about that in a moment—although I am advised there have been no reports of serious by-catch problems for other dolphin species in recent years.

You may be aware that my first job as Minister of Conservation was to declare Hector's dolphin an endangered species, triggering a range of conservation management and protection measures that DOC could then initiate.

Hector's dolphin is one of our most important marine species. Found only in New Zealand waters, it is sometimes described overseas as "the New Zealand Dolphin".

In the South Island, where the great majority of Hector’s dolphins live, it appears that the long-term prospects for Hector’s dolphin are good.

New Zealand’s first marine mammal sanctuary, established around Banks Peninsula 12-years ago, has been very successful. The latest survey estimates suggest that around 1000 Hector’s dolphins can be found within the sanctuary’s waters during the summer breeding season. The main hazard to young dolphins now seems to be not gillnets, but learning to stay out of the way of pleasure craft.

Outside the Sanctuary, unfortunately, things are not so rosy for Hector’s dolphins in Canterbury. The dolphins are mainly found close inshore, usually in turbid waters. Gill nets set in these waters would be hard to detect, and we know that far too many Hector’s dolphins have drowned in recent years in such fishing nets.

Interestingly, the commercial fishers in Canterbury have acknowledged this problem and they are taking positive steps to address it. They have changed their patterns of fishing, so as not to pose as great a threat to dolphins in shallow coastal waters. They have also voluntarily fitted acoustic warning devices, or pingers, to their nets.

The story with recreational users of set nets is—however—discouraging. A few amateur fishers are believed to have been responsible for the deaths in set nets of four Hector’s dolphins found on Canterbury beaches in recent weeks.

Both the Minister of Fisheries and I are very concerned that such catch rates are unacceptable. We have agreed that he should take prompt action to prohibit the use of set nets within one mile of shore over a large portion of the Canterbury coastline.
He will be employing his powers under the Fisheries Act to effect a temporary closure to set net use, pending a full review over the next six months.

I can also report good co-operation between the Ministry of Fisheries and DOC on the management proposals in development for North Island Hector’s dolphin.

Firstly, however, I’d like to pay tribute to Dr Scott Baker and his team at Auckland University’s Molecular Ecology Laboratory. They are perhaps best known for their genetic sleuthing that has shown the presence of various endangered whale species on world markets, by unravelling the DNA code from tiny samples of tissue.

Some very elegant work, carried out a couple of years ago, showed that the North Island population of Hector’s dolphin was genetically very distinct from the South Island population, and has been isolated for tens of thousands of years.

Furthermore, the genetic diversity of modern day dolphins is considerably less than that found in the DNA of museum skeletons, implying that there has been a great reduction in population over the past one hundred years.

The North Island Hector’s dolphin population is only just hanging on, and can’t be rebuilt by immigration from the South Island.

Last May, MFish and DOC hosted a two-day workshop of stakeholders, including fishers, scientists, and conservation groups.

All participants agreed that it was essential that human-related threats to dolphins are reduced to the barest minimum – with a target of no more than one dolphin death every five years.

I want to acknowledge the initiative shown by the fishing industry.

The Northern Inshore Fisheries Company has undertaken consultation with its members and other stakeholders, and has placed a proposal before the Minister of Fisheries to address the problem. Officials from DOC and the Ministry of Fisheries will be consulting on protection measures for Hector’s dolphin in the North Island over the next few weeks.
I would encourage you to make sure you obtain a discussion document, and make a submission.

Recognising the importance of maintaining our marine biodiversity as well as our terrestrial plants and animals is an important feature of the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy.

Gathering community support behind that conservation objective is one of my most important tasks as Minister of Conservation.

There is a Maori proverb that translates as: "With your basket and with my basket we can feed our guests; with your weapon and with my weapon we can defeat our enemy."

I welcome your continued support in protecting our very special cetacean species.

Let me once again thank you for inviting me to be here this evening, and it is now my pleasure to assist in the presentation of the research grants.


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