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Biologists Liz Slooten and Steve 

Dawson crisscross southern New 

Zealand’s scenic Akaroa Bay look-

ing for the world’s smallest dolphin. 

Hector’s dolphins, unique to New 

Zealand’s shallow coastal waters, 

explains Slooten. Like Dawson, she 

is a professor at the University of 

Otago, in Dunedin, near the south-

ern tip of New Zealand. The cou-

ple has been studying these dol-

phins for the past 32 years, during 

which they have seen their num-

bers plummet as thousands upon 

thousands drowned after getting 

caught in gill nets and towed trawl 

nets used by fishermen. Though 

their use is legal, these kinds of nets 

trap and kill, in addition to marine 

mammals and turtles, many more 

fish than the fishermen can sell.

“We’ve seen the species fragment-

ing into smaller and smaller iso-

lated populations,” says Slooten.

One of these, a subspecies called 

Maui’s dolphin that’s been separat-

ed from the rest for 16,000 years, has 

only 50 to 60 adults thinly spread 

over 400 miles off the western coast 

of the North Island, down from 

2,000 individuals in 1970. It has be-

come the world’s rarest dolphin. “It’s 

heart breaking because it’s so eas-

ily avoidable,” Slooten says. The rest 

of the population, a slightly larger 

sub-species known as Hector’s 

dolphins, has fallen from a prob-

able 50,000 to an estimated 10,000.

Since 2012, the International 

Whaling Commission, along with 

IUCN, dozens of nonprofits and 

the country’s opposition parties 

has been calling on the New Zea-

land government to ban all nets 

in the Maui’s habitat. But so far, 

the New Zealand government has 

only banned nets in a tiny frac-

tion of the Maui dolphins’ habitats.

But ending net fishing in the Maui 

dolphin’s habitat would financially 

impact the main player there, San-

ford Ltd. The company is the coun-

try’s biggest and oldest fishing 

concern, and in the Maui dolphin 

zone, it owns 60 percent of the 

quota for snapper, the most valu-

able catch, taken mostly by bottom 

trawlers. Sanford’s main share-

holder and former chairman, Pe-

ter Goodfellow, is president of the 

conservative National Party, which 

has been in power for eight years. 

 “You have to wonder if the gov-

ernment would do the right 

thing if the links between San-

ford and the party weren’t so 

close,” says Slooten, the biologist.

Nathan Guy Primary Industries Min-

ister insists that existing protection 

measures, which ban all nets in 5 

percent of the Maui’s habitat and 

gill nets in another 14 percent, are 

adequate. His reluctance to ex-

tend the ban to the entire habitat 

comes as no surprise to academics.

The country’s fisheries manage-

ment structure is built on the neo-

liberal belief that a resource will 

be better managed by its owners 

than by government regulators. 

The government gave fisher-

men quotas — the right to fish a 

certain amount of a certain fish 

in a certain place — for the spe-

cies they were already fishing. 

But it allowed the quota owners 

to hire other people to fish their 

quota and to sell them to anyone. 

The result is that today, most quo-

tas are owned by large corpora-

tions that make a profit simply by 

hiring independent fishermen to 

catch their quotas and paying them 

less than the value of the fish they 

bring in. The system encourages 

wastefulness and profits corpora-

tions at the expense of consum-

ers and independent fishermen.

Sanford’s CEO, Volker Kuntzcsh, 

the company, which owns just un-

der a quarter of the whole coun-

try’s fishing quotas, was asked 

why don’t they simply stop fish-

ing with nets in the dolphin’s 

habitat and justify its name, “The 

Home of Sustainable Seafood.”

“There’s quite a lot of fish com-

ing out of that area,” he replies. 

“Our board wouldn’t be happy” 

if the existing fishing stopped.  

But, he adds, “We do suffer 

from a bad reputation here,” 

and … “we want to prove that 

we’re really serious” about 

saving the Maui dolphin.

So instead, he explains, Sanford 

has pledged to stop trawling by 

2022 and to continue trawling 

with its vessels in the Maui habitat 

until then. The company, which 

also buys net-caught fish from 

five vessels in the Maui dolphin 

habitat, will stop doing so start-

ing in March. It will also no longer 

purchase fish caught by gillnets 

in the Maui dolphin habitat. So 

they could be sold elsewhere and 

won’t necessarily change anything.

Until last year, criticism of New Zea-

land’s fisheries industry was muted 

by the widespread perception that 

it lived up to the “world-leading” and 

“clean and green” image vigorously 

promoted by the government. In-

deed, a 2009 study based on the of-

ficial catch statistics of 53 countries 

ranked New Zealand first in sus-

tainability. “On paper, they looked 

great,” said Daniel Pauly of the Uni-

versity of British Columbia, a co-

author of that study. “They scored 

better than anyone on the key stuff, 

like respecting their catch quotas.” 

Quotas, based on population es-

timates often derived solely from 

catch reports, are limits set by scien-

tists to prevent overfishing, which 

reduces fish populations and lowers 

the annual yield of catchable fish.

Pauly, who is the world’s most quot-

ed fisheries scientist, also directed 

a global survey to determine just 

how accurate were those national 

catch statistics, which are curated 

by the UN’s Food and Agriculture 

Organization in Rome and form 

the bedrock of international fish-

eries policy. The survey, published 

in January 2016, found that the 

global seafood catch from 1950 to 

2010 was a third higher than what 

countries had reported to the FAO. 

But for the New Zealand chapter of 

the study, published in May 2016, 

a team of researchers from the 

universities of Auckland, Oxford, 

and British Columbia uncovered 

a level of organized deceit that 

Pauly says is unparalleled: Over 

60 years, the average real catch 

was an eye-popping 2.7 times big-

ger than what was reported (Since 

1986, the catch was 2.1 times the 

amount reported, or double). Cur-

rently, the estimate is that about a 

third of the catch in New Zealand 

is unreported. Most of the hidden 

part comes from fully-licensed com-

mercial vessels illegally discarding 

38 percent of their catch (that’s 

more than four times the global dis-

card average), and then systemati-

cally filing false catch reports while 

government regulators looked 

the other way, the report found.

But what the New Zealanders did 

is in a class of its own, not only 

by the sheer size of their discards 

but because for decades they 

went to fishing conference say-

ing their quota system was the 

best in the world — and most 

people believed them, of course.”

Slooten, the dolphin biologist, says 

under-reporting of dolphin killings 

is even worse, on the order of 20 

to 1. Between 2000 and 2006, for 

instance, the National Institute of 

Water and Atmosphere estimated 

the mortality of Maui and Hec-

tor’s dolphins at between 770 and 

1050 a year. Yet the NZ govern-

ment informed the whaling com-

mission that only 48 dolphins were 

reported to have died in nets. A 

ministry document shows that 

only 2 percent of the fishing days 

in the Maui’s habitat had observ-

ers. “There are no incentives for the 

fishermen to report these deaths 

and lots not to, so it’s not surprising 

very few are reported,” Slooten says.

Glenn Simmons, the lead author of 

the New Zealand catch study on 

which Pauly is also co-author, says 

that the pressure to discard less 

valuable fish was baked into quota-

based fisheries model adopted by 

the industry and its regulators in 

1986. In theory, the quota owner 

would choose the most profitable 

— therefore efficient — way to fish 

a given stock of fish. In practice, 

trawling and gillnetting, which 

bring in the most fish at the least 

cost, are indiscriminate; the trawler 

pulls a sock-like net over the bot-

tom, where most fish are found.

Whatever species a fisherman has 

a quota for, he still would end up 

with many fish that were either 

of low value or for which he had 

no quota, Simmons explained. 

One such report described by Sim-

mons and obtained and released 

by a local television journalist last 

year caused a sensation because 

it contained video footage of fish 

being dumped. The report de-

scribes Operation Achilles, under-

taken in 2012, in which officials 

installed cameras on six trawlers 

as a pilot project to see how many 

dolphins they caught. The foot-

age showed that one vessel killed 

two Hector’s dolphins on the same 

day. The report noted the skipper 

waited four days to report the first 

dolphin death and didn’t report 

the second one at all, which is ille-

gal. The footage also showed that 

all but one of the six vessels’ crews 

filmed were discarding fish with 

abandon, which is punishable by 

a NZ$250,000 (US$175,000) fine.

“We have never had such compel-

ling evidence to prove what we have 

known for a long time,” wrote Mark 

Sanders, the investigator who wrote 

the Achilles report. He urged his su-

periors to prosecute the crews. Were 

the video to be released, which it 

eventually was, he wrote, “The sight 

of large, perfectly good fish being 

systematically discarded… could… 

stir up an emotive backlash not only 

from the NZ public but from inter-

national quarters as well.” Not fix-



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Fishing Industry really, really good at lying

In the past three decades the dolphins’ numbers have plummeted as thousands upon 
thousands drowned after getting caught in gill nets and towed trawl nets used by fisher-
men. Photo courtesy of DoC.

“Turns out that what they 

were really, really good at is 

lying,” Pauly says.