Green Party is blaming the SQU6T squid fishery for the decline in NZ Sea Lion pup counts


On the 18th of December 2011 there was another report on the Sunday 6pm News becrying Seafood Industry culpability. This time it was the New Zealand Green Party is blaming the Auckland Island  squid fishery(SQU6T) for the decline in NZ Sea Lion pup counts

This report is inaccurate on so many fronts. Not only is it misinformed, it is under-informed. It is also biased and activist in scope. I should be shocked – but frankly this left leaning, political reporting is commonplace on TV One – and I shouldn’t be surprised.

Following the TV News report a link and a story was published on Stuff: Greens-take-sea-lion-fight-online – The article reads:

The  battle to save the New Zealand sea lion – regarded by officials as “critically endangered” – has gone online. Conservationists fear proposed fishing management regulations around the sea lion breeding ground on the Auckland Islands, 465km south of Bluff, could push the species closer to extinction.

The Ministry of Fisheries’ proposals include allowing squid trawlers to continue to use equipment which is known to seriously injure and kill sea lions; removing the mammals from the by-catch limit for the squid fishery in the Auckland Islands; and not requiring any sea lions killed in trawling gear to be kept on board for later post-mortems.

With the cut-off for submissions just five days away, Green Party oceans spokesman Gareth Hughes has set up a webpage where people can have their say on the proposals. “Often with our marine animals, they are out of sight, out of mind,” Hughes told the Sunday Star-Times. “No one would ever possibly consider having accidental by-catches of kakapo or kiwi. Yet we allow it for our marine animals.New Zealand sea lions are amazing creatures. They are the most threatened sea lion population in the world . . . we can’t do anything that puts them to further risk. This proposal definitely puts them at risk. These guys are a special part of our heritage and we need to protect them. If we get thousands of ordinary Kiwis sending a message that sea lion protection is important, hopefully we can change the policy.”

Under the MAF proposal, squid crews would have to use nets fitted with sea lion exclusion devices. The devices are meant to provide sea lions with an escape route from a net, but international research has questioned whether they work. The Greens’ online submission form can be found at

The plight of New Zealand Sea Lions has been an issue of contention between for over 5 years. And although it could be argued that 5 or 6 years ago the Seafood Industry may have had more impact on New Zealand Sea Lions than they would have liked – it is now a matter of public record that after the implementation of a number of avoidance and mitigation measures and practices, the impact of fishing activity on Sea Lion pup numbers is no longer significant. Apart from the very occasional capture of rogue male animals, capture rates of New Zealand Sea Lions in SQU6T nets are negligible. The above report doesn’t mention for instance – that last year not one Sea Lion was captured in the squid fishery.

But then again I am not surprised. The Green Party is becoming renown for suffering from ‘lag’. Last year at the New Zealand Seafood Conference, the same Hon. Gareth Hughes addressed the conference and articulated concerns and issues that may have been current years before, but that had long since been addressed or were being addressed. It is almost deja vu, when we see him addressing the nation in the above report as to the plight of NZ Fur Seals and their relationship with fishing vessels. The NZ Sea Lion ‘problem’ has been on the collaborative work agenda of both the Seafood Industry and the Ministry of Fisheries for many years. The proposed changes to the Fishing Related Mortality Limit (FRML) for sea lions is a result of that work. Previously the limits that were placed on the SQU6T fishery were based on precautionary ‘crypticmortality rates. These are being lifted as a result of robust science undertaken by both the Ministry of Fisheries and the Seafood Industry that indicates unequivocally that the ‘cryptic’ limits are inaccurate and with reference to the squid fishery, irrelevant.

New Zealand Sea Lions (Photo: Phombo) Source:

New Zealand Sea Lions (Photo: Phombo)

Sea Lions and Squid: How are the Squid Fisheries Managed?

Squid are not managed like New Zealand’s other fisheries where strict TACCs are set annually allowing only pre-determined tonnages of fish to be taken commercially each year.

Squid are semelparous which means they live, spawn once and die in discreet generations each year. Every year there is a natural variation in squid abundance, which is thought to be due changing oceanographic conditions such as water temperature which has an effect on squid eggs. Furthermore squid grow quickly, and are capable of growing from the a few grams to two kilograms within 6 months. It is this combination of characteristics coupled with its life cycle that makes squid so unique and amenable to management by fishing method, rather than by area.  This management strategy has resulted in squid catch rates (the number of squid caught as a proportion of effort) that have remained steady and high.

The New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri) forages in the same range as the Auckland Islands squid trawl fishery. The fishery occurs during summer and autumn every year when sea lions are concentrated in their breeding areas on the Auckland Islands. While not dependent on squid (sea lions eat a wide range od fish, cephalopods and crustaceans) sea lions are known to feed on squid from trawls and are encountered during trawling. Every year a number of sea lions are drowned as a result of being captured in trawls during fishing. As a result of these interactions the fishery is closely monitored and managed by the Ministry of Fisheries to ensure that the incidental mortality level does not effect the sea lion population’s overall integrity. The use of strategies to avoid or mitigate interactions with NZ Sea Lions include Sea Lion Exclusion Devices (SLEDs). SLEDs are an initiative that are included in a more comprehensive  Seafood Industry imposed Marine Mammal Operational Procedures (MMOPs).

The MMOPs apply to all trawlers 28m and over in length fishing within the New Zealand EEZ & to all protected marine mammal species encountered during deep-sea fisheries operations, including New Zealand sea lions, fur seals and common dolphins.

The MMOP provides information on:

    • Mitigation measures to reduce the risk of captures.
    • Procedures that should be followed if a marine mammal is incidentally captured.
    • Crew health and safety when dealing with marine mammals.
    • Identification guide for key marine mammal species.
    • Reporting requirements to the Ministry (i.e. Non-fish Protected Species Catch Return (NFPSCR)) and DWG (i.e. Trigger Points).

The Ministry manages the squid trawl fisheries by method, rather than by area with an Operational Plan and sets an annual FRML for sea lions. Once that limit is reached the fishery is closed. By setting an FRML for sea lions, and then closing the fishery when that FRML is met, the Ministry is essentially setting a limit on the amount of squid tows for the squid fishing season. The strike rate is 5.6 sea lions for every 100 tows and for every fisherman who deploys a squid net with a Sea lion exclusion device (SLED), the strike rate is decreased to 3.67 lions for every 100 tows. The use of SLEDs then, constitutes a discount factor, and when this ‘discounted rate’ is divided by the FRML – those who use a SLED have more tows than those who do not use SLEDs.

Each year the Ministry of Fisheries calculated an FRML for the number of sea lion captures that can occur in SQU6T fishery. The calculation was based on:

    • The sea lion pup count from the previous season
    • The modelled effects of fishing on the sea lion population
    • The balance between the need to access squid fisheries with the need to manage the effects of the fishing on the sea lion population

Below are the calculations for the 2009 – 2010 fishing year. However they change each year.

    • FRML = Fishing Related Mortality Limit for the number of sea lions calculated by population model
    • FRML= (76) allowed
    • Strike Rate = predicted number of fatal interactions per 100 tows based on history
    • Strike Rate = (5.65)
    • Discount factor reduces strike rate as it recognises the reduction in fatal interactions by allowing sea lion to escape (by using SLEDs or Sea Lion Escape Devices)
    • Discount Factor = (35%)
    • Total tows for season = FRML (76 ) ÷ Strike Rate ( 5.65 ) x 100 = Total Tows (1345)
    • If all qualify for discount by SLED use
    • Strike Rate (5.65) x Discount Factor (0.35) = New Strike Rate     (3.67) THEN
    • Total tows = FRML (76) ÷ New Strike Rate (3.67) x 100 = Total Tows (2069) or more tows in the fishery.

If a SLED is used the strike rate is less than if you do not, and therefore you are allowed a greater number of tows. It is important to realise that the discount factor is precautionary in that it still assumes that many of the sea lions not retained have died after escaping due to injury.  The number of sea lions retained and reported is not deducted from the FRML. So the number of tows allowed in the fishery is based on these pre-determined levels of FRML, strike rate and discount factor, not on the number of actual reported animal mortalities.

The Discount Factor – The Ministry allows the discount factor of (35%) % to all vessels if:

    • Their SLEDs meet set specifications. SLEDs to be audited by a DWG approved net shed.
    • Provide 72 hours notice to the Ministry Observer office of intended departure from port. This can also be done weeks in advance on the proper form and changed when port call details are actually confirmed.
    • Meet any other requirements of the Ministry SQU 6T operational plan.

Sea Lion Exclusion Device (SLED)

The seafood industry is working in collaboration with the Ministry of Fisheries and Department Of Conservation to minimise all interactions between marine mammals and harvesting practices. One such initiative is the development of a Sea Lion Exclusion Device (SLED) within the net. A SLED normally consists of a strong grid placed at an angle across the front of the opening of the net. The grids are big enough to let squid swim through but are too small for larger creatures, such as sea lions to get through. They are guided up the grid, by the motion of the water and can then escape by swimming through an opening in the top of the net. As you can see from the video below they are enormously effective at enabling Sea Lions to harvest from the net without being captured. Sea Lions are very capable swimmers and are more than adequate at using the SLED.

The SLED development started as an adaptation of a “turtle exclusion” device, designed and deployed in the Northern Hemisphere prawn fishery.  The design underwent rigorous re-development in the flume-tank, coupled with many years of sea-trials, before settling on the current design and SLED specifications. Underwater filming also confirmed that there is very little loss/escape of the target species and revealed footage of sea lions exiting the SLED escape hole. Further scientific studies by Ministry have shown that the SLED leads to significant reduction in sea lion mortality.

The One News report and the article above refers to the use of SLEDs and says “Under the MAF proposal, squid crews would have to use nets fitted with sea lion exclusion devices.” What it fails to say is that SLEDs (Sea Lion Exclusion Devices) have been deployed by Squid fishermen since 2000 and are continually improved and modified to maximise their effectiveness in minimising captures of sea lions.

Sea lion population dynamics and interaction with harvesting operations is closely measured and analysed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Department Of Conservation, working collaboratively with the seafood industry in a comprehensive fishery observer program. The seafood industry pays hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to facilitate Ministry observers on-board fishing vessels in the most highly observed fishery (38% of all trawls in the SQU6T area in 2009) in the New Zealand EEZ.

In 1986 a 12 mile nautical mile ‘no trawl’ zone around the Auckland Islands was established under the Fisheries Act to protect the sea lion specifically from incidental trawl captures. In 2003 total protection to marine biodiversity in the territorial sea around the Auckland Islands was guaranteed by the formation of a full marine reserve.

There is no substance in the Green party assertion that “[NZ sea lions] are out of sight, out of mind”. Nor is there any substance in the implication that neither the Government nor the Seafood Industry cares about NZ sea lions.

What are the Proposed Measures?

Objective 5 of the 2011-12 Ministry of Fisheries Annual Operational Plan (AOP) is explicit about measures to manage interactions between Sea Lions and Vessels Targetting Squid:

Each year the Minister of Fisheries sets a related mortality limit (FRML) in order to manage fishing the level of interactions between New Zealand sea lions and the squid trawl fishery around the Auckland Islands. Work to support this decision, including consultation under Section 12 of the Fisheries Act, will be undertaken between July and September 2011. Collaborative monitoring and reporting of the allowed effort against the FRML will be undertaken by the Ministry and DWG once the fishery commences post February 2012. In addition, work will continue to assess likely impact on sea lion survivability from interactions with Sea Lion Exclusion Devices.

Objective 11 of the 2011-12 Ministry of Fisheries Annual Operational Plan (AOP) states:

Deepwater fishing vessels are known to interact with marine mammals during fishing activity. Where these interactions are determined to be adverse, management intervention is required. There are non- regulatory measures in place to minimise marine mammal interactions, including the Marine Mammal Operating Procedures (MMOPs) and use of exclusion devices in the squid fishery. The Ministry will continue to monitor and audit compliance with mitigation measures to ensure the non‐regulatory management regime remains effective and to seek solutions where it is not found to be effective. The level of interactions and any additional management measures will be reported to stakeholders and tangata whenua. The focus for 2011‐12 is to continue to monitor interactions with marine mammals, at sea mitigation activities, and to continue the industry education programme.

Below is a link to consulative document refered to in Objective 5 of the AOP – The SQU6T Initial Position Paper (IPP). This IPP sets out the proposed management measure sfor the SQU6T fishery – which includes the removal of the FRML.


Political Motivations

The New Zealand Seafood Industry and the Ministry of Fisheries have a working relationship that is unprecedented in other States, even other sectors. In 2006 both parties signed a Partnership Agreement that was updated further to formalised the increased integration and partnership that had taken place over the previous 5 years. Management of New Zealand’s fisheries resources – is consistent with a National Deepwater Fisheries Plan that was implemented in a spirit of partnership described above, and with a common desire to have a sustainable resource that brings benefit to not onlt the fishing quota owners, but to all New Zealanders. The management of the SQU6T fishery is consistent with the National Deepwater Fisheries Plan. It is pro-active about conservation and sustaianble utilisation where harvest strategies include the remedy, avoidance and mitigation of any adverse effects on the environment – this clearly includes interactions with marine mammals like the New Zealand Sea Lion.

It is clear that the attribution of blame to the squid fishery has political ends – not only does it direct public opinion and undue scrutiny onto the Seafood Industry, it also provides political leverage and pressure for the Government to levy the Seafood Industry for any work that needs doing to allay the public interest. No Woolmington golden thread for the Seafood Industry. A news release from Otago University back in August of this year states quite unequivocally what researchers and other scientists including researchers from DOC have long known – No one knows why the Auckland Island Pup numbers are declining when, numbers on Campbell Island are increasing, and why numbers breeding on the Otago Peninsula are also increasing:

Pup numbers on the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands – one of two areas in New Zealand where the species breeds- have declined by 40 per cent between 1998, when 3021 pups were produced, and 2009, when only 1501 pups were born. This is compared to the second largest breeding area on the Campbell Island, which saw its population of New Zealand sea lions slowly increase during the same period. Dr Robertson says previous research linked the drop on the Auckland Islands to breeding females not returning to these Islands to feed their pups or to have new pups.  But it was unknown what was causing the decline.

The report continues:

The study reviewed all previous data and concluded the most plausible explanation for the decline in breeding females in the Auckland Islands was competition for resource between the squid fishery and sea lions, and that sea lions were too often casualties of fishing by-catch. Researchers noted that the Auckland Islands has a strong squid fishing industry within range of the sea lions, where as Campbell Island has no fishery operating close enough to cause a problem for its breeding colony.

Not only is it my opinion that apportioning blame on the Seafood Industry is not helpful, it is also the opinion of Dr. Robertson who wrote in the press release:

This research is not about apportioning blame, rather I was interested in what is the cause of the observed decline. Understanding the cause should allow managers to address the decline. We can now say, of all the potential causes, the most likely are human impacts associated with squid fishing around the Auckland Islands”.

There is no doubt that there is a decline in the pup numbers of New Zealand Sea Lions on Auckland Island. The Green Party’s campaign to save the New Zealand Sea Lion spearheaded by Gareth Hughes, along with Bruce Robertson (Zoology Lecturer at Otago University) and Stephen Broni (Sea Lion Trust Chairman) is a positive initiative and ought to be supported. However attributing the decline to squid fishing will not achieve the desired outcome, nor is it accurate to do so. What is needed is the allocation of public resources in order to ascertain the real reasons behind the decline. Only by doing this will it be possible to manage the problem.


2 thoughts on “Green Party is blaming the SQU6T squid fishery for the decline in NZ Sea Lion pup counts

  1. Pingback: A disease (Klebsiella pneumonia) is killing Auckland Island sea lion pups in unsustainable numbers! | Green Fish Blue Fish

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