Wider set net ban urgently needed to save yellow-eyed penguins

Forest & Bird is calling for an immediate extension to a ban on commercial and recreational set-netting around Otago Peninsula, following the release of a major new international review that has found that set nets kill more than 400,000 seabirds around the world every year.

Yellow eyed penguin, Photo: Craig Mckenzie

Yellow eyed penguin, Photo: Craig Mckenzie

The results of the review, undertaken by conservation group BirdLife International, have been published in the Journal of Biological Conservation.

The 400,000 death toll is described as conservative, as most deaths go unreported, and because it is known that “ghost nets” can continue to capture birds after the nets have been abandoned. The study uses the term “gill nets;” which are more commonly known as “set nets” in New Zealand.

Set nets are mainly used in coastal waters. Their fine nylon threads are invisible to diving seabirds such as penguins and shearwaters, as well as Hector’s dolphins, and turtles. There are less than six hundred pairs of yellow-eyed penguins left on mainland New Zealand. Around 150 of those live on the Otago Peninsula.

Because the penguins feed in the coastal waters set nets are used in, Forest & Bird Seabird Advocate Karen Baird says that yellow-eyed penguins are a prime example of a species whose chances of survival would improve with the help of better controls on set nets.  

“The current four kilometre-wide set net ban around the Otago Peninsula’s coast should be extended to around the 150 metre depth contour, the extent to which yellow-eyed penguins are known to forage. This effectively means that the protection zone needs to extend to around 20 kilometres offshore,” Karen Baird says.  

Because the birds are also a cornerstone of Otago’s $100 million a year eco-tourism industry, Karen Baird says there are also very good economic reasons to ban set nets.

“Yellow-eyed penguins are one of five species people go to New Zealand’s Ecotourism capital, Dunedin, to see. The others are royal albatross, sea lions, blue penguins and fur seals. Together these species are akin to the ‘Big Five’ in Africa. Losing penguins on the peninsula would be like going to Kenya and not being able to see lions. Yet we are doing virtually nothing to protect these birds while they are at sea,” Karen Baird says.

“There are only four commercial set-netters operating around the Otago Peninsula, all of which target rig, a low-value fishery that is never going to rival the economic value that comes from the region’s eco-minded visitors. Whatever angle you look at it, creating a decent set net-free zone makes real sense.

“Set nets placed anywhere in coastal waters where penguins are moving between their feeding grounds and their nests to feed their chicks are a problem,” Karen Baird says.

The risk of losing the yellow-eyed penguin colonies on the peninsula is particularly high right now, with 56 birds having been found dead around the Otago Peninsula this breeding season – the victims of an unknown toxin.  

“This sudden die-off significantly adds to the pressure on this small population. Fifty-six dead adults represent a considerable portion of the remaining breeding stock,” says Dr Ursula Ellenberg, a Dunedin penguin expert, and a contributor to the Birdlife review.

“The cumulative effects of fisheries by-catch and other factors threaten this vitally important yellow-eyed penguin population stronghold. Reducing the well known risk of mortality in set nets would greatly enhance their chances of survival,” Dr Ursula Ellenberg says.