Action needed to save critically endangered New Zealand sea lions

A proposed threat management plan aimed at saving our critically endangered New Zealand sea lions fails to tackle the harm to the main breeding population caused by commercial squid fishing, Forest & Bird said today.

Photo by Kimberley Collins

“The main avoidable cause of sea lion deaths is commercial fishing but the threat management plan offers nothing to reduce the impact of the Auckland Islands squid fishery,” Forest & Bird marine advocate Anton van Helden said.

New Zealand sea lions have a “nationally critical” threat ranking, the same as the kākāpō.

Forest & Bird wants to see changes to the management of the Auckland Island squid fishery that would include alternative fishing methods, such as jigging with hooked lines, which has been used in the past and is much safer for sea lions.

The Ministry of Primary Industries and Department of Conservation’s proposed threat management plan proposes more monitoring and research into the decline of New Zealand sea lions. Submissions on the proposed plan close today.

“We need to be doing much more than talking about more monitoring and research,” Anton van Helden said.

New Zealand sea lions were once found all around our coasts and today their population is estimated to be just 11,800 and they are largely confined to our Sub-Antarctic Islands. The Auckland Islands colony accounts for about 70 percent of the breeding population.

The number of sea lion pups born on the Auckland Islands declined by half between 1998 and 2009. Bacterial disease outbreaks affecting pups and fisheries-related deaths of adult female sea lions with dependent pups have both been implicated in this dramatic decline.

A total of 1,322 sea lions were estimated to have been killed after being caught in nets in the Auckland Islands squid fishery between 1992 and 2009. The industry claims the development and introduction from 2001 onwards of sea lion exclusion devices (SLEDs) – which are intended to allow sea lions to escape nets unharmed – has drastically reduced deaths.

“Fishing industry figures claim there have been only six recorded deaths in the last four years but we don’t know how many sea lions are killed – or injured to die later – in collisions with SLEDs before being ejected by them. They won’t be recorded,” Anton van Helden said.

“Forest & Bird wants to see a plan that will put New Zealand sea lions on a clear path to non-threatened status.”

“The goal of the threat management plan to raise the population from the current estimate by an unquantified amount is promising no more than to hold the line.”

"The consultation document proposes further research into the threats faced by New Zealand sea lions, primarily focusing on natural threats like disease, while downplaying the impact of fishing. Research and monitoring is important, but there is no firm commitment to fund this work" he added.