The World is Their Pearl Oyster


Australian South Sea Pearling Industry is innovative, re-emergent and is embracing the rarity of Australian South Sea Pearls.

Over the weekend (12 November 2016) the Wall Street Journal ran the story on its website For Australia’s Pearl Farmers, the Wild Is Their Oyster.

The story (written by WSJ journalist Vera Sprothen) that charters the journey of the pearling industry over the past few years, and with a point of view that is both refreshing and rare, celebrates quality and rarity in favour of quantity and mass production:


The WSJ website also features a video that supplements the story above (click here to view it):

The video is high quality and augmented with footage from the recent National Geographic/Paspaley production “The Secret Life of Pearls.” Again it refreshingly provides some welcomed clarity with respect to an industry that isn’t well know. What is more it provides some astonishing truths about the industry in a global context:

Australia is the last place in the world where pearls are cultured in wild oysters. They are handpicked from the ocean floor by divers…”

In the last few years china has taken over the global market with cheap mass produced freshwater pearls. A single mussel, often cultivated in flooded rice paddies, can yield as many as 50 pearls, whereas a[n Australian] south sea oyster grows just one.”

Experts say that the quality of cheap pearls is proving every year. However, unlike [Australian] south sea pearls, the Chinese ones are irregularly shaped and bleached with chemicals to give them a white gloss.”

[I note that with respect to pearl quality and rarity, one chinese pearl jewellery producer points out in the video when referring to a pearl strand: “This is a big size south sea pearl from Australia. This is the perfect pearl. In every piece the colours match, the surface is very clean and the size is very big.

The video notes a sea-change in approaches by the Australian pearling industry.  The industry is innovating and branching out into the ability for consumers to feel the pearling experience, to bring the consumer closer even insofar as they can see the “grunt behind the glamour.”  The Australian Industry is also embracing their demonstrable sustainability, their harvest of wild oysters by hand, their gentle touch and minimal interaction with the environment and the harmony that is created between the pearl producer and the untamed waters of the Kimberley which is perfectly encapsulated in an Australian South Sea Pearl.

Personally I enjoyed the story. I look forward to the Australian South Sea Pearling Industry to continue to make their global mark.

“All the Glistens is not Gold”: In a World first Australian South Sea Pearls to undergo Assessment against the MSC Standard

 I note that they [the Australian Pearling Industry] are due for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification – which would certainly make Australian South Sea Pearls the ethical and responsible environmental choice … and make rare Australian pearls rarer still.



New Zealand to help Tonga develop a well-managed & sustainable deepwater line fishery


I just saw a wee snippet in Dive New Zealand:

The $2.7m NZ government-funded project draws expertise from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), the South Pacific community, Tonga’s government and fishing industry. The aim is to develop a well-managed, sustainable line fishery for deepwater fish in Tonga’s Exclusive Economic Zone. 

This Tongan aid programme was first announced last month by NIWA in a press release:

New Zealand helps Tongan deepwater fisheries development

A programme to help Tonga maximise the economic benefits of commercial fishing has been launched in the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

Coinciding with a visit to Tonga by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, the $2.7m NZ government-funded project draws together expertise from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), the Secretariat for the Pacific Community, Tonga’s government and fishing industry.

The aim is to develop a well-managed, sustainable line fishery for deepwater fish in Tonga’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Project leader and NIWA fisheries scientist Dr Stuart Hanchet said the project was funded by the NZ Aid Partnership Programme and partners will explore ways to maximise economic returns and develop new market opportunities.

“Biological sustainability and improved management are also key objectives,” Dr Hanchet said.

The project builds on the recently approved Tongan Deepwater Fisheries Management Plan by providing key information to support implementation of the plan.

Sustainable development in Tonga

The Agenda 21 website provides a good overview on sustainable development in Tonga:

The Agenda 21 was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Conference recommended that States consider preparing national reports and communicating the information therein to the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) including, activities they undertake to implement Agenda 21, the obstacles and challenges they confront, and other environment and development issues they find relevant.

The Johannesburg Summit 2002 (the World Summit on Sustainable Development) organised by UN Commission on Sustainable Development focused on strategies for meeting challenges that best humanity going forward, including improving people’s lives and conserving our natural resources in a world that is growing in population, with ever-increasing demands for food, water, shelter, sanitation, energy, health services and economic security.

Also see: NZ announces “sustainable” development assistance for Tonga

A disease (Klebsiella pneumonia) is killing Auckland Island sea lion pups in unsustainable numbers!


I have just received a sobering media statement that was released by Deepwater Group yesterday (22 February 2014) that provides information on the New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri) pup survival.

Disease is killing 600 sea lion pups at the Auckland Islands each year.

The disease Klebsiella pneumonia is killing Auckland Island sea lions in unsustainable numbers. The Deepwater Group, which represents the squid fishing fleet off the Auckland Islands, has written to Conservation Minister Nick Smith on the eve of his departure for the Southern Ocean on HMNZS Wellington today. It has requested the government intervene to save the endangered New Zealand sea lion population which uses the Auckland Islands as its main breeding ground. According to George Clement (Deepwater CEO), in the 1990s, around 34 per cent of sea lions survived to breeding age.

A bacterial disease, Klebsiella pneumoniae, somehow got into this population around 13 years ago. It is killing a third or more of the pups before they reach the age of two – leaving fewer than 15 per cent to survive to breeding age.” 

“This means that in the early 1990s around 900 pups survived to breeding age each year and now only around 200 pups are surviving to breed. As a result, this population is in decline.”

“As alarming as these numbers are, the real situation could yet prove to be worse because we have already lost many of the sea lions which would now be breeding. Unless we roll up our sleeves and do something to halt the effects of this epidemic on the pups, this population is likely to decline further before it can increase.”

George Clement says the seafood industry has told Nick Smith that it is offering to work with government and with experts in veterinary science, animal husbandry and in treating animal diseases, to find practical solutions to save the sea lions.

Interventions are urgently needed that will prevent this disease from reducing the population further. Klebsiella infections in humans can be treated with antibiotics, so a way has to be found to prevent the young sea lions dying before they leave for sea.”

In the past, the seafood industry has been blamed as the main threat to sea lions. But when 600 pups die each year from disease and 15 adults are killed by fishing, it is evident this population will continue to decline, even if there are no further deaths from fishing.”

As an industry we’ve invested a huge amount over the past ten years to reduce incidental sea lion bycatch in our catch management, in particular refining the Sea Lion Escape Devices (SLEDs) which have drastically reduced the risk to the sea lions from fishing.”

But this disease is a much bigger threat than fishing ever was. We want to work together with government and experts in various disease disciplines, both from New Zealand and overseas, and any NGOs as well, to save the unique New Zealand sea lions from extinction”.

Graph Showing New Zealand Sea Lion Pup Mortalities over time. Source: Deepwater Group Media Release

Graph Showing New Zealand Sea Lion Pup Mortalities over time. Source: Deepwater Group Media Release

I am trying to make sense of the numbers provided in the graphs above. At first blush the “red” sector stating that 32% of pups born between 2005-2010 died from disease, stands out. But on further analysis its the “green” sector that is the most sobering:

  •  34% of pups born between 1990 t0 1993 survived to breed as adults
  •  14% of pups born between 2005 t0 2010 survived to breed as adults

The effects of this are enormous. Lets consider this numerically!

  • For arguments sake, let’s say 1000 pups were born in 1992. According to the figures above, 340 of these would survive to breed (note 170 of these would be females). These 340 breeding adults would produce maybe 170 pups.  Of these 170 pups, 57-58 (28-29 females) would end up recruiting into the population as adult breeders (remember that there are other older breading females producing pups in the population too), so 34% survival is ok.
  • Now look at the situation in 2005-10. Say 1000 pups were born in 2007. 140 (note 70 of these would be females) of these pups would survive to adulthood to breed. These 140 breeding adults would further produce at maybe 70 pups .  According to these numbers, of the 70 pups, 10 (5 females) would end up recruiting into the population as breeders. 5??

George Clement said it above…

this population is in decline.” … ““As alarming as these numbers are, the real situation could yet prove to be worse because we have already lost many of the sea lions which would now be breeding.” …

Interventions are urgently needed that will prevent this disease from reducing the population further. Klebsiella infections in humans can be treated with antibiotics, so a way has to be found to prevent the young sea lions dying before they leave for sea.”

Lets get in there and do something. Let’s do more than watch and monitor… Lets intervene!

What would work?

    • A drenching programme?
    • An inoculation programme that provides protection against Klebsiella pneumonia.

It can’t be that difficult. We do it with other animals all the time on a daily basis. Wouldn’t consultation with a vet with an expertise in pinniped epidemiology would be a good start? Even a team of vets?

If we do nothing the decline will continue. And before we know it.

We will be looking at a handful of breeding pairs struggling to keep this endemic species in existence.

New Zealand Sea Lions (Photo: Phombo) Source:

New Zealand Sea Lions (Photo: Phombo)

New Zealand Sea Lion Information

For more information see the Department of Conservation (DOC) website:

New Zealand sea lions are only found in New Zealand. They are one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world and arguably the most threatened because of their declining numbers and restricted breeding range.

Sea lions are found mainly on beaches in Otago and Southland areas and New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands. New Zealand sea lions are generally quite confident around people and dogs so it is important to keep at least 10 metres from them.

Related articles


McDonald’s prefers that the Alaska At-sea Processors Association stay with MSC Certification?


Here is something of interest from Intrafish (21 Feb 2014):

Alaska Pollock to stay with MSC – citing requests from customers as the motivation for  pollock suppliers to stay with MSC

This is interesting.  I would have thought that with the  growing market acceptance for the Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) scheme, Alaska fisheries like  pollock would eventually move towards RFM certification. But it seems that this is not the case. The article suggests that the adherence to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Fisheries Standard is a result of “requests from customers“.

But lets dig a little more deeply into this  “requests from customers” statement.

Just over a year ago in a blog post (A Fairy Story: McDonald’s, Marine Stewardship Council, Filet O’Fish and the Certification of New Zealand hoki) I blogged the relationship between MSC, McDonald’s and Alaska Pollock! I quoted David Jolly’s New York Times ‘green’ blog  that asserted McDonald’s partnership with MSC:

“The most tangible effect of the sustainability imprimatur is that, beginning next month, Filet-O-Fish wrappers sold in the burger giant’s 14,000 American restaurants will display the Marine Stewardship Council label. McDonald’s also announced on Thursday that it would roll out a new promotional menu item in February called Fish McBites — think chicken nuggets, only made from pollock — that would also carry the council’s label.”       …

“The world’s biggest fast-food company announced last week that its sourcing of fish for the United States market, which is entirely wild-caught Alaska pollock, had been certified by the council, perhaps the best-known organization promoting sustainable fishing around the world.”     …

“McDonald’s did not have to do much to comply with the council’s requirements.  Susan Forsell, McDonald’s vice president for sustainability, said that under the company’s own in-house sustainable fisheries program, which began 10 years ago, 100 percent of McDonald’s fish is already purchased from fisheries that have received stewardship council certification. In Europe, where McDonald’s products rely on both the Alaskan pollock and sustainable European fisheries, the council’s logo already appears on the company’s packaging.”

Hoki & McDonalds

Filet-o-fish illustration and caption that featured in the story by Micheal Field. US stops using hoki in restaurant meals. Southland Times. 29 Jan 2013

If we join the dots – we can see that the Alaska At-sea Processors Association, by sticking with MSC, are accommodating their customer’s sourcing policy. Since that customer is McDonald’s (who not only use a “shangload” of pollock in their Filet o’Fish  but also a year ago announced a partnership with MSC) I am sure APA don’t mind too much.


Below is the text of the Intrafish article (Alaska pollock producers sticking with the MSC) [Friday 21 Feb, 2014]

Requests from customers motivates pollock suppliers to stay with MSC

“The At-sea Processors Association (APA), the client for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BS/AI) and Gulf of Alaska (GOA) pollock certifications, said Friday it will move forward with the second reassessment of the fisheries under the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) program.

The BS/AI Alaska pollock fishery is currently certified through December 2015 and the GOA pollock fishery through September 2015.

In September, the MSC certified the Russian Sea of Okhotsk pollock fishery, creating a competitive source of MSC pollock.

APA has accepted a proposal from MRAG Americas to conduct the fisheries’ reassessments and will continue to extend the license to all Alaska pollock producers on a cost-sharing basis.

 APA Executive Director Stephanie Madsen cited requests from customers as the primary reason for continuing with the certification.

“The Alaska pollock fisheries first became certified in 2005, but they have been sustainably managed for over 35 years. Sustainability certifications are an independent validation of that fact,” she said. She added that some Alaska pollock customers have developed marketing programs based on the MSC eco-label and asked that APA maintain the certification.

Madsen also gave a shout out to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Insititute’s certification program, considered a competitor to the MSC certification, at least in Alaska.

“The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska fisheries are also certified under the Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management Program (RFM), which is based on the FAO’s international guidelines for sustainability and ecolabels,” he said. “We support both programs to allow for customer choice.”

The Alaska pollock fisheries recently passed its second annual audit under the RFM program and nearly all Alaska pollock producers are certified for RFM chain of custody.”

Related articles

Walmart says it will begin accepting seafood certification programmes other than the Marine Stewardship Council


I just read in the Guardian what I honestly thought might have occurred 4 months ago….

Walmart says it will begin accepting seafood certified programmes other than the Marine Stewardship Council.”

Is it true? Have Walmart done an about turn on something they vilified just a year ago? Has Walmart just made an about face accepting the sustainability certification based on the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (COCRF)? I wasn’t sure I was reading correctly until my colleague sent me an email that with the dismissively cool subject title “Walmart accepts RFM standard” and an attached PDF of an article from Intrafish “Walmart: ASMI-backed program meets sourcing guidelines.” But the ‘coolness’ and lack of comment spoke volumes… We both have been following the intrigue and we both know the symbolism embedded in Walmart’s announcement.

So I don’t have to pinch myself… its true… here is some further evidence of its veracity:

On Thursday (23 January 2014) almost 4 months after acknowledging the kinks in its sustainable seafood sourcing policy at a US Senate hearing, Walmart’s Vice President of meat and seafood, David Baskin, announced that Walmart (the world’s largest retailer) had decided to expand its sustainable seafood policy (SSP) to include certification programmes other than the Marine Stewardship Council. Prior to the revision of the SSP the the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) backed Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM)  certification programme was problematic for Walmart, who announced in 2013 that it would have to stop stocking Alaska seafood if it didn’t meet the MSC sustainable fisheries standard.

The progress towards Walmart’s sustainable seafood sourcing policy has been a slow one, with strong pressure being exerted by eNGOs who have undertaken to walk away from Walmart’s sustainability programme [NGOs push walmart to defy congress]. On the other hand, it is arguable that this call to defy congress, is nothing more than final push by the eNGOs who could see the recognition of the RFM by Walmart as inevitable after the United States General Services Administration (GSA) wrote MSC out of their sustainable sourcing policy in September 2013.

In an earlier post I quoted from a letter from GSA’s David Blue to US Senator Murkowski:

GSA’s believes that American managed fisheries do not require third-party certification to demonstrate responsible and sustainable practices.  GSA and HHS designed the Guidelines to make healthy choices more accessible and appealing.  We intended the Guideline’s citation of third-party certification organizations to serve as helpful examples for potential bidders, not as eliminating factors.  Our goal was to broaden choices, not to restrict options.”

In my mind this revision by GSA was the first indication that MSC’s prominent position as the principal market access gatekeeper was being eroded. The revision of the Walmart SSP goes further; by recognising the RFM programme as an acceptable third-party sustainable certification standard, it paves the way for viable market access alternatives to MSC.  In this way the revision of the SSP by Walmart has the potential to have far reaching effects for the sustainable certification of seafood worldwide. The initial effect of this announcement is that Walmart can continue to stock Alaska seafood in accordance with its SSP.

The revised policy provides for the inclusion of a management programme that accords with the Principles of Credible Sustainability Programs developed by The Sustainability Consortium (TSC). It must be noted that acceptance by the TSC may be subject to a third party review. So acceptance is not assured. However, initially the Walmart SSP  stipulated that  all fresh and frozen, farmed and wild seafood suppliers to source from fisheries who are:

What are the short-term and long term effects?

Alaskan Airline's Wild Alaskan Salmon 737 - Note the Alaskan Fisheries Marketing Board Logo just below the Captain's side window.

Alaskan Airline’s Wild Alaskan Salmon 737 – Note the Alaskan Fisheries Marketing Board Logo just below the Captain’s side window. Source:

According to who quoted ASMI Communications Director, Tyson Fick:

The decision comes as vindication of Alaska’s seafood sustainability process. This isn’t just about salmon, it’s about RFM certified seafood like Pollock, cod, halibut, crab, and more.”

And Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich (chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard):

This is why I’m pleased that they have finally come full circle with a full reversal of their sustainability policies … to purchase Alaska seafood

So first hats off to Walmart!!!

Just like the ASMI they are trail blazing! And trail blazers are fabulous aren’t they?

Walmart deserve recognition as trail blazers because, not only did they soak up to the pressure; they had faith in seafood professionals who implement progress before PR, who put in the work to make sure their harvest is responsible and that their resource endurable. But mostly they deserve the trail blazer tag because of their acceptance of the RFM as a legitimate and acceptable seafood certification programme, even though the RFM is a sustainability programme that is outside environmental NGO sphere of influence. This is a move that cannot be under-estimated given that for the past decade environmental NGOs like WWF, have been (at least in fact) the self-imposed “what is sustainable and what is not sustainable” gate keepers. This position as market access gatekeepers has been a lucrative cashcow for a number of eNGOs who have built ticket clipping consultancy businesses around demonstrating sustainable sourcing. I am happy to see this position being abraded… I for one do not equate eNGOs with commercial consultancy.

In my opinion:

The acceptance of the RFM by Walmart is a step into the future… where primary producers will demonstrate the responsibility, the endurability and yes, the sustainability of their harvested resource, and where in consideration of the demonstration retailers will stock it and sell it to their customers…

This recognition of the Alaskan Responsible Fisheries (RFM) certification programme by Walmart is courageous, it will no doubt attract some flack from the media and eNGOs (who are no doubt very aware of the symbolism of the RFM recognition). But us netizens… as shoppers of sustainable seafood, as quid pro quo for Walmart’s bravado, should blaze a trail with our dollars and embrace Walmart’s purchasing policy.

Sadly I am unable to purchase seafood in Walmart today… But I am not based in the USA nor in a country with a Walmart. So please go give Walmart a pecuniary high five on my behalf… and have some salmon for dinner. ^^

Maui’s Dolphins: Rather than pointing fingers, let’s negotiate the polemic and point the way forward


I been following the Plight of the New Zealand Maui’s dolphin here at GfBf:


According to the Department of Conservation (DOC):

Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui)[is the world’s smallest dolphin and is found only on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand and nowhere else in the world. It is New Zealand’s rarest dolphin […] with a DOC-commissioned 2012 study estimated the Maui’s dolphin population to consist of 55 with a 95% confidence interval of between 48 to 69.”

For some the jury is still out on whether Maui’s dolphins constitutes a new species, a sub-species, or simply an extant population isolated from the other more common South Island Hector’s dolphins. For others that distinction is irrelevant.

In short the Maui’s dolphin is on the precipice of extinction. And worse still, in a country that prides itself on its effective, pro-active and precautionary environmental management.  Somehow the Maui’s dolphin has fallen through the cracks, and now it has got to the point that if something is not done… New Zealand will face the unthinkable…

Yet in this climate of catastrophe a maelstrom of accusations, finger pointing and emotive tit for tat is blocking any progress:

  • Cetacean scientists are blaming the fishermen who they say are 95% responsible for the decline;
  • The Government is concerned with the fusing of scientific evidence and eNGO advocacy and the lack of objective science;
  • The Media is publicly trying Taranaki fishermen and making claims that the Government is not doing enough;
  • The Government is countering with spatial closures of virtually the entire West Coast of the North Island; & lastly
  • The Fishermen who are wearing it all are claiming that they do not catch Maui’s dolphins and that the measures imposed by the Government are unduly arduous.

What a Cacophony!

In earlier pasts we have had a hard look at the science, have looked at the nature and extent of the interactions between Maui’s dolphins and fishing vessels and have looked at the records of Maui’s dolphin mortalities. None of this analysis has provided any clarity… Not really, all that it has really done is increased opacity and provided additional uncertainty to fuel debate.

There simply is no time for that, is there?

  • Sure Fishermen can wear some blame. They have interacted with dolphins, very occasionally. Unfortunately, risk is irreversibly linked to potential adverse outcomes… and the potential adverse outcome of one or two Maui’s dolphin mortalities in a population of 55 is very significant;
  • Sure the quality of the science is poor, and most of the scientific and technical personnel who should be providing objective advice to Government and Marine Managers are in bed with eNGOs advocating an end to fishing, marine mammal sanctuaries that comprise most of New Zealand’s coastal waters and other management measures;
  • Sure the Media’s coverage which is anti-fishermen, anti-Government and pro- scientific advocacy has skewed the debate and lead to national outrage and outpourings of emotion, this leads to more interest, and sells more papers;
  • Sure politicians are using the Maui’s debate to score political points, and the Government (which has the ability to impose a plethora of interventions) has instead dragged their feet, limiting management responses to spatial closures. This approach has had no effect on the population decline and has had a monumental adverse impact of the West Coast North Island Seafood Industry.

THIS FIASCO has created a culture of mistrust, which is the opposite of what is needed.

To save the Maui’s dolphin, we all need to sing from the same song sheet. We need to put aside egos, the point scoring. We have to stop saying “I am right way and your arewrong!”. We need to leave the science to the scientists, and the management to the managers. Personalities and perceptions of expertise have to be seen in context, and considered irrelevant outside that context … If Maui’s are to have a chance we have to do all of that and more.

Most of all we need to act … In unison

Hector’s dolphins have a unique rounded dorsal fin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The solution is clear!

I hate to be one of those people who rely on movies to provide relevant epistemology, but in my search to provide rationale for my belief that there must be a solution to the Maui’s dolphin cacophony, I seem to be unable to shake the image of the Merovingian on the Matrix Reloaded (2003) extolling his ‘one constant’ that there is:

“…One universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.”

But he may be right. If there is a problem there must be a solution.

A very well respected person from the Seafood Industry sent me a three pronged solution (below) that really must be shared. It is so simple, yet I am not surprised that such an ease of solution was overlooked, given the present status of the Maui’s dolphin fiasco:

  1. Get in there and intervene as soon as possible, and remove some animals from the wild for breeding
  2. Collaborate and objectively assess situation to find drivers of the decline and their solutions
  3. Negotiate the polemic… and meet the real objective which is to save the dolphins

1) Intervention

Maui’s dolphins are in trouble and the New Zealand Government is not doing enough to halt the trajectory towards their extinction.  Removing every fishing boat from the vicinity of Maui’s dolphin habitat will not halt the decline. It is past that now. It is time for intervention.

The plight of the Maui’s Dolphin is now no different from that of the Chatham Islands Black Robin (Petroica traversi), the American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) & Koala (Phascolarctos cinereu), which were all at one time also on the brink of extinction. For example the Californian Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) which had became extinct in the wild in 1987 had a population of just 22 individuals. It is estimated that there are now around 450 birds. So just as active intervention saved the black robin and the Californian condor from extinction, intervention is needed to save the Maui’s dolphin Just like what was done for the black robin and the kakapo (Strigops habroptila), some Maui’s dolphins need to be removed from the wild and breed to increase numbers (setting  aside genetic material for future should also be undertaken).

The Seafood Industry could lead this. After all the New Zealand Seafood industry has no shortage of innovative individuals who have the ‘get up and go’ that is needed to implement such an innovative initiative.

Maybe I am overly and naively optimistic… but I honestly believe that the New Zealand public and maybe even the Government (once they realise they are on a winner) would get in behind such a Seafood Industry lead initiative. The New Zealand public are good at getting behind good causes. Look at Peter Blake’s Red Socks (and he wasn’t saving a threatened species).

2) Find drivers behind the decline and the solutions

Despite what rhetoric is sold by the media, (risk aside) increased fishery observation, and mandatory reporting have demonstrated that fishing attributed mortalities are not the main threat to Maui’s dolphins, nor is fishing the primary threat to Maui’s survival. This much is clear.

So what is the main driver behind the decline? Is it environmental degradation of coastal waters? changes in the availability of their diet? disease? No-one knows for certain.

We need to get to the bottom of it.

We need to undertake an objective and independent expert review to establish the risks to the Maui’s dolphin population and to propose solutions.

The Government should drive this. They should cast the net as widely as they can, and seek expertise from wherever it can be found.  They should engage with interested parties from all corners of New Zealand, and seek international expertise.

3) Negotiate the polemic

For any assessment of the plight of Maui’s dolphins to be effective, it has to be based on the best available scientific/technical information. Assessment needs to be driven on facts and not emotion.

In order to make any progress and meet the undisputed objective (which is to save the dolphins) we need to assert interests and not positions.

Is pointing scoring, punishing, blaming and finger pointing meeting our objective, and saving the dolphins. You’d think with the amount of it going on that it is.

My last word is this…. Save the Dolphins

Maui’s Dolphin Population Status: giving facts a helping hand – a Guest post by Hasile


GFBF’s guest poster Hasile is very interested in the plight of the New Zealand Maui’s dolphin, of which there are an estimated 55 individuals left.

For some the jury is still out on whether Maui’s dolphins constitute a new species, a sub-species, or simply an extant population isolated from the other more common South Island Hector’s dolphins. For others whether or not the Maui’s population constitutes a distinct species is an irrelevant consideration… It is accepted by all that the population is distinct, and it is critically endangered to the point where extinction is imminent if something drastic is not done.

According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC):

Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori mauiis the world’s smallest dolphin and is found only on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand and nowhere else in the world. It is New Zealand’s rarest dolphin […]

In 2012 a DOC-commissioned study estimated the Maui’s dolphin population to consist of 55 with a 95% confidence interval of between 48 to 69. The estimate is for individuals aged more than 1 year (i.e. this excludes calves of under a year). This small population of dolphins is thought to have been isolated from their more-numerous relatives, South Island Hector’s dolphin, for thousands of years. Maui’s dolphin used to be known as North Island Hector’s dolphin. But research showed the North and South Island dolphins are separate sub-species that are physically and genetically distinct from each other.”

However like so many critical situations the search consensus on a way forward with respect to saving the Maui’s dolphin has been hindered, by politics, finger-pointing, and mistrust. I highlighted in a previous post in April last year (Maui’s Dolphins: Swimming in a sea of all sorts of mischief?) that the plight of the Maui’s dolphin has seen

“...sustained pressure on the Government by eNGOs,the Media, the public and of course opposition politicians who are  using the campaign as leverage to garner political points at the expense of the Government. This pressure has been squarely placed on the Commercial Fishing Industry, who beset on all sides by sectors pointing accusatory fingers, protest their perceived culpability.”

Often the campaign has been theatrical… There was even a funeral march in 2012… where protestors marched through the Auckland Electorate of  Kumeu-Huapai to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s electorate office in Helensville demanding urgent action to save the Maui’s dolphin. The Rodney Times reported that the “mourners” included Rodney Labour candidate and former Rodney and Auckland Regional Council representative Christine Rose of Huapai who has long used the issue of protection of the critically endangered dolphin as political leverage.

According to Hasile central figures have manipulated scientific data for the purpose of controlling the debate. In an Article (below) sent to GFBF in December 2012 Hasile charters the statistical drift of the Maui’s dolphin scientific information.

A visual education tool about the state of the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin and fishing-related threat management options currently under review by the NZ Ministry of Primary Resources.  Source:

A visual education tool about the state of the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin and fishing-related threat management options currently under review by the NZ Ministry of Primary Resources. CLICK TO VIEW EDUCATION TOOL. Source:

A Case of Giving Facts on Maui’s Dolphin a Helping Hand (by Hasile)

Cephalorhynchus hectori. Photograph by James Shook. Source: Wiki Commons

Cephalorhynchus hectori. Photograph by James Shook.
Source: Wiki Commons

Increasingly, as technology becomes more sophisticated, reliable and adaptable, the terms of access to natural resources should be ideally based on robust and coherent science on the effects of that extraction. 

Unfortunately, there is an apparent trend, based variously on academic niche and security, international scientific status, ideological attitudes to humanity’s place on the planet, the need to simplify and generalise for popular opinion and a central belief that commercial use of any and every resource inevitably leads to its overexploitation and environmental degradation.

This trend can lead to scientific literature which is less reliable than it ought to be.

The Background of Otago University’s Liz Slooten

Dr. Liz Slooten, an Otago University professor of Zoology, called for greater supervision aboard trawling boats. “The numbers of observers on the boats are far too low.” Source: See

An article in Endangered Species Research by Elisabeth Slooten could be a case where factors have led to a mismatch of the empirical data with the conclusions reached.  Dr Slooten argues that data shows what is unquestionably a severely endangered animal sub-species is not only under threat from fishing activities, but that threat has increased over the years, rather than diminished.

Dr Slooten has devoted most of her professional life to the study of Hector’s dolphins.  It is no exaggeration that she was traumatised seeing the effects on the Hector’s dolphins of the introduction of monofilament nets some decades ago.

The 1 August 2012 issue of Life and Leisure retells, in almost folk lore terms, how she spent half of 1984 on a VW Kombi van tour of the South Island coast in search of Hector’s dolphins with Steve Dawson.  She is quoted at her first sight of a Hector’s as, “A sort of ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’ moment.”

Dr Slooten is an Associate Professor in the Zoology Department at Otago University and is described by the University as ‘the foremost authority’ on Hector’s (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and Maui’s subspecies (C. hectori maui).’ She teaches ecology, statistics, risk analysis and a MSc course on marine mammals. She and Dr Dawson have supervised several MSc and PhD projects on the species. They have published more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications.

In 1992, Drs Slooten and Dawson launched the New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust for research and conservation. In 2004, they were awarded the Royal Society’s Sir Charles Fleming Award for their contribution to conservation science.

The University of Otago website states Dr Slooten ‘represents New Zealand at the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission’ and that she, and Dr Dawson, are ‘members of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group and regularly advise government.’

Dr Slooten predicts an international trade boycott of New Zealand seafood products, if the restrictions on fishing in what she claims are Maui’s dolphin sub-species habitats, are not increased.  In the Taranaki Daily News on 17th July 2012 she said,

Logically it doesn’t make sense for people to boycott hoki, for instance, because dolphins aren’t being killed in the hoki industry but that is the next step.  Do we want to be seen as dolphin killers overseas?

She also told BBCNews on 10th June 2013;

If Maui’s dolphins went extinct that would be very bad in terms of our international reputation.  Obviously New Zealand is known as a clean green country and that reputation is very important to exports, to tourism and in general to our international reputation.

Dr Slooten has written and expressed views on sea mammals other than dolphins. The Final Advice Paper on New Zealand Sea Lions by DOC and MPI in 2012, was critical of Dr Slooten’s suggestions for measuring the frequency of sea lion captures in Sea Lion Escape Devices by blocking their escape, stating;

 The Ministry does not support the proposal advanced by Elisabeth Slooten to cover the escape hole of SLEDs. This would need to be conducted over several years to get a robust estimate of strike rate and would result in deliberate drowning of sea lions.

In April 2013, Otago University Press published Drs Slooten and Dawson’s book, Dolphins Down Under: Understanding the New Zealand DolphinThis book is a dolphin watcher’s handbook, complete with photos of Hector’s Dolphins at Banks Peninsular, which she named ‘Zorro’, Huffer’, Biggus Nickus’ and ‘Rooster’.

In December 2013 Dr Slooten chaired the Organising Committee of the 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, which was hosted by Otago University.  These conferences are rarely held outside North America. Dr Dawson chaired the Scientific Programme Committee and Dr Slooten was also on that committee. Dr. Slooten and Dawson delivered a keynote presentation on the conference opening morning, ‘A flagship of NZ conservation is foundering’.

Dolphin Reproduction Research

Cover of Raewyn Peart's 2013 book 'The Dolphins of Aotearoa' Source:

Cover of Raewyn Peart’s 2013 book ‘The Dolphins of Aotearoa’

The Otago University promotion of ‘Dolphins Down Under: Understanding the New Zealand Dolphin’ stated that Dr Slooten ‘researches and publishes on reproductive and population biology…’

A review of Dr Slooten’s papers on Hector’s type dolphins, as listed by Otago University on its website, nonetheless does not reveal publications exhibiting this expertise in any but a most limited sense.  This work, listed as published since 2006, is confined to various forms of observation which avoids actual or protracted contact with the dolphins.

The limits to what is acceptable and relevant science on Hector’s dolphin in New Zealand appear to have thus been set by its most prominent researcher.  For example, in ‘Dolphins Down Under’ (page 63) Dr Slooten objects to satellite tagging Hector’s type dolphins, on the basis that such attaching such tags would alter their behaviour and also would endanger the dolphins. She added that such tagging was unnecessary anyway, given that that she knows and can recognise all of the Hector’s dolphins around Banks Peninsular.

In Raewyn Peart’s 2013 book ‘Dolphins of Aotearoa’ she writes (page 254) that Drs Slooten and Dawson in 2003 opposed the use of satellite tags on Maui’s since it was ‘intrusive’.

The only exception to non-intrusive observation research currently into the Hector’s species in New Zealand is laboratory analysis of the DNA composition of individuals of the species, with skin samples being darted off the dolphins.  The lure of producing interesting pie graphs in learned papers on genetic variation among the Hectors and Maui’s, was obviously too much, even for Dr Slooten to prevent.

The DNA work by itself has some interest in establishing; individual identification, whether Hector’s and Maui’s breed, population spread or whether there is sufficient genetic diversity to prevent inbreeding depression.  The work though is largely of academic interest and has, at best, a marginal utility of actually being used to protect the species from decline or extinction.

Investigations into the nature, identification and duration of Hector’s dolphin oestrus for example, which would be a vital precursor to assisted reproduction of Maui’s dolphins, have not been carried out. The viewpoint of New Zealand’s announced foremost expert on such dolphins, is that such research is neither necessary nor acceptable.

Indeed Dr Barbara Maas, the London based Head of International Species for NABU International, mocked the idea of assisted reproduction in her presentation on Hector’s type dolphins at the Marine Mammal Conference in Dunedin, though she provided neither reasons nor basis for her derision.

DNA Evidence of Distribution

In the Taranaki Daily News on 20th July 2012, Liz Slooten, wrote that the southernmost confirmed sighting of a Maui’s dolphin was one from which a biopsy sample was taken in Wellington Harbour.

Ten days later, on 30th July, Scott Gallacher, Deputy Director-General of the Ministry for Primary Industries, replied in the same publication, writing  that there were claims made by ‘some commentators’,  about Maui’s dolphins that were ‘misleading or incorrect’. He referred to the Wellington biopsy sample and pointed out,

The only biopsy sample taken from a dolphin in Wellington Harbour was that of a Hector’s, and that happened in 2009.”

Indeed Dr Slooten is justified in acknowledging the existence of such biopsy samples – there is even a Maui’s sample taken in Wellington which may have been collected  back in 1873.

Fishing and Dolphins

Fishing Vessels docked at the Tauranga Waterfront, New Zealand. Source QFSE Media, Wiki Commons

Fishing Vessels docked at the Tauranga Waterfront, New Zealand. Source QFSE Media, Wiki Commons

In the Endangered Species Research article Dr Slooten analyses the efficacy of restrictions on fishing on the three populations of Hector’s dolphins Cephalorhynchus hectori in South Island waters and that of the Maui’s subspecies C. hectori maui which inhabits an indeterminate range (albeit with a well-known core) in the waters off the west coast of the North Island.

Dr Slooten refers to the Maui’s habitat as WCNI (West Coast North Island).  Four of South Island originating Hector’s, two alive and two dead, have been identified in recent years within the Maui’s population in West Coast North Island (WCNI).  Thus Cephalorhynchus found off the West Coast of the North Island are not all Maui’s.

Marine Mammal Sanctuaries. The marine mammal sanctuaries layer has been updated to include the marine mammal sanctuaries (as they were legislated in October 2008).

Marine Mammal Sanctuaries. The marine mammal sanctuaries layer has been updated to include the marine mammal sanctuaries (as they were legislated in October 2008).

Dr Slooten’s position is clear.  She states that she believes that “bycatch in fisheries is the most serious threat to both species, (sic) …

However her views on the efficacy of banning fishing, to save Maui’s from extinction, are ambivalent.  She was cited, 30, April 2012, as stating,

…natural processes could take them away. If we stopped catching them in fishing nets tomorrow we would still hold our breath … so we really need to pull out all the stops or soon we’ll go past the point of no return.”

She details the introduction of various targeted fishing area restriction measures in the years since 1988 and finds favour with the results.  But she still asserts that the overall New Zealand Cephalorhynchus population is in decline. In relation to by catch of Hector’s species in the period since 2008, she states,

Formal and informal reports from the fishing industry include NZ dolphin deaths on the SCSI and WCNI”.

This implies a plural culpability in both areas.

According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) Hector’s dolphin incident database; in which any formal report would be displayed, there have been five Hector’s type dolphins found and examined in the period since 2008 on the West Coast of the North Island (WCNI).  The post mortems for four of the dolphins describe no indications of fishing being the cause of death.  There is only one fatality attributed to fishing recorded – that of the Hector’s type taken by fisherman Ian McDougall off Cape Egmont in January 2012.

So the Slooten statement, based on one capture, is technically correct.  There has been one formal report of a Hector’s type dolphin killed by fishing in the WCNI since 2008.

In ‘Dolphins Down Under: Understanding the New Zealand Dolphin’ (page 70) Dr Slooten’s inclination to expand a singular event into a whole series of occurrences can be seen when she states that there have been recent ‘sightings and deaths in gillnets off the Taranaki coastline’.  There certainly have been many sightings along this coast, and other coasts.  DOC encourages these reports.

But [one fact remains], other than the one in 2012, there have been no mortalities which could be [directly] attributed to fishing recorded in Taranaki waters for nearly a quarter of a century.

Use of DoC Data on Fishing Induced Mortality Maui’s Dolphins

Maui's dolphin extinction scenario - Under current protection levels, Maui’s dolphins will become practically extinct by 2030 as a result of fishing. Green bars: Historic population status, orange bars: prognosis at an annual decline of 9% due to fishing. Source:

Maui’s dolphin extinction scenario – Under current protection levels, Maui’s dolphins will become practically extinct by 2030 as a result of fishing. Green bars: Historic population status, orange bars: prognosis at an annual decline of 9% due to fishing.

In Endangered Species Research (Page 126), Dr Slooten, explains (under the subtitle of ‘Strandings and reported bycatch’) that she is using information from ‘the DOC’s database (database) of strandings and bycatch’, mainatining that the value of the information on the database as ‘at best, a qualitative (i.e. theoretical) indication of dolphin mortality’.  This is a sound reservation.

However at page 127, she refers to the same ‘qualitative’ information:

“In the far north and far south, bycatch increased slightly over time. For WCNI, there was 1.00 dolphin death (sic) yr from 1970 to 2008 and 1.33 dolphin deaths yr from 2009 to 2012.  The protected area off the WCNI was originally put in place in 2003.  Therefore it is useful to compare the periods before and after 2003.  Again, an average of 1.00 dolphin deaths yr from 1970 to 2002, increases slightly to 1.11 yr from 2003 to 2012.”

This paragraph is problematic.  Either Dr Slooten is misrepresenting the figures of deaths attributed to fishing by DOC in its database;  or, she is, without clearly stating this, assuming and conveying that all reported Maui’s dolphin mortality through the years is attributable to fishing activity.

First, lets look at the empirical evidence of Maui’s dolphin fishing caused mortality. The DOC database has reported up to quarterly in detail since 1st July 2008.  It reports by possible cause of death, but not by date, for the period 1921 – 19th March 2008. It reports five WCNI mortalities since 1 July 2008, and 40 in the period 1921 – 19th March 2008. Furthermore of these five dolphin mortalities since 1st July 2008, only one, the Ian McDougall capture in January 2012, is attributed as a fishing caused mortality. Of the other four, two were Hector’s and two were Maui’s.

Of course, it is not only possible, but likely in earlier instances, that there was some fishing mortality which was not attributed.  Thus, quite correctly, Dr Slooten acknowledges her analysis to be qualitive only.

Conversely it should also be noted that the mortalities listed as attributed to fishing, may in fact not be due to fishing at all, since DOC describes some as these as ‘fishing’ being only the ‘possible’ cause.

Of the total of 40, in the period 1921 – 2008, only five mortalities in WCNI are described as showing signs of fishing being the cause of death. They are variously listed as; ‘net marks – not determinate’, ‘possible entanglement’ (2X), ‘probable entanglement’ and ‘known entanglement’.

The DOC/MPI Sept 2012 Consultation Paper (Paper) states six such mortalities, with three stated as ‘known entanglements’ including the Ian McDougall capture in 2012.

The Paper’s total of 46 mortalities 1921 – 2012 is inconsistent with the database which also lists 46 mortalities, but database includes one beachcast off Dargaville in 2013 and so not on the Paper list.

Neither the database nor the Paper break down the 1921 – 2008 tally by years, only possible causes of mortality, and so, from either the online DOC incident database or Consultation Paper, any sub periods of 1921 to 2008 cannot be compared directly with the year groupings of Dr Slooten’s figures.

In contrast any figures Dr Slooten uses between 2008 and 2013 can be directly compared with the public DOC site database.

However the information is even more confused with DOC providing to some parties a more detailed list (list) of the pre 1st July 2008 mortality, including the dates of mortalities against possible causes of death.  The list allows for a direct comparison of Dr Slooten’s figures prior to 2008 with those DOC has. The additional list discloses, for instance, that the first possibly fishing attributed mortality was in 1997, a ‘possible entanglement’. Presumably Dr Slooten has this list.  She would need it, or a similar source, to be able to identify breakdowns by different year groups prior to 2008, though she makes no mention of doing do.

The data from all three DOC sources is adopted in the table below, with the list derived data used for groups of years to provide the comparison with the Slooten figures.  Prior to 1970 there were four mortalities reported on the list.  For the period 2003 – 2008, where the list contains six entries, there are no fishing related deaths.

However the list, while detailed, is complicated. It includes an auxiliary  tally, citing 44 mortalities 1921 – 2012, against the on-line database list of 45 (plus one in 2013) and the Paper’s 46 for the same 1921 – 2012 period. These discrepancies in these data from DOC, have nothing but a marginal bearing on the inaccuracy or otherwise of the use of any or all DOC data by Dr Slooten.  She has only stated one source of her figures, that which is, ironically, the lowest of the three DOC totals.

Dr Slooten has set out various periods between 1970 and 2012.  This removes four of the pre 1970 deaths listed on the DOC list.

WCNI Hector’s type dolphin mortality, and mortality attributed to fishing; by DOC and by Slooten 1970 - 2012

WCNI Hector’s type dolphin mortality, and mortality attributed to fishing; by DOC and by Slooten 1970 – 2012

Apart from the matter of how the total of a 43 year period could include a decimal point, let alone two, the Slooten figures for the two time breakdowns closely agree; at 44.3 apparently fishing related deaths from 1970 to 2012 when divided at 2002-03, and 44.32 when the tally is divided at 2008-09.

They nonetheless exceed all of DOC’s on line database register estimations, the additional more detailed list and the discussion paper tally, whether counting total deaths, or the ones Dr Slooten may be attributing to fishing.

All three DOC sources produce a tally of potentially fishing related mortality since 1970 as six.  Dr Slooten appears to state the tally is 33.

The DOC data describes 10 Hector’s type dolphin deaths on WCNI in the ten years 2003 – 2012 from all causes.  Of these, DOC attributes only one mortality to fishing and that one was well outside the restricted fishing zone and by MPI’s admission was ‘about as likely as not’ to have been a Hector’s in the Discussion Paper.

It is possible that Dr Slooten relies on the ‘open’ diagnosis in the post mortems as displayed on the database for two Hector’s type, (November 2010 and October 2011) as suspect fishing mortalities.  However the post mortems as specific as to the lack of fishing by-catch injury and are open in their conclusions simply over disease analysis which has now been carried out though not entered in to the incident database.

In contrast, to this DOC figure of one, Dr Slooten appears to claim 11.1 deaths of Hector’s type from fishing in the ten year period 2003 – 2012.

A proposition that Dr Slooten is trying to cite by-catch deaths, and not all reported deaths, is therefore completely unsubstantiated by the data.

Astonishing as it is, this is the clear interpretation put upon Dr Slooten’s paper by Dr Barbara Maas, in her submission to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, ‘Science-based management of New Zealand’s Maui’s dolphins – Scientific paper for IWC’, SC/65a/SMO6′.

Dr Maas states, at page 4 of the report,

“Since the 2008 protection measures were introduced, the number of stranded and reported bycatch cases has increased slightly (Slooten 2013). Between 1970 and 2008 an average of 1.00 entangled Maui’s dolphin was recorded per year. This figure increased marginally to 1.33 dolphin deaths per annum between 2009 and 2012.”

Accordingly, a maximum of six Maui’s deaths since 1970, for which evidence held by DOC exists, that the dolphin is both Maui’s and fishing might be responsible for its death, is now reported by Dr Maas to the IWC as a total of at least 52 Maui’s deaths confirmed as caused by fishing in the same period.

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