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An estimated 30 hoiho deaths in commercial set nets in the most recent annual data underlines the urgent need for action to stop the mainland population of the world’s rarest penguins becoming extinct, Forest and Bird says.

Three hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, were reported killed in three separate commercial set net incidents in the 2017/18 year in the East Coast South Island fishery and the Southland to Fiordland fishery. Given the observer coverage in those two fisheries amounted to just 10.4% during the year, there may have been about 30 deaths of hoiho in both of those fisheries.

“With only 10 percent observer coverage in these fisheries we can never know the full picture of what is happening at sea. The survival of our mainland hoiho population depends on what is essentially a guessing game,” says Forest & Bird’s Chief Executive Kevin Hague.

“Government proposals to create marine reserves and protected areas on the South Island’s east coast and a proposed new threat management strategy are positive steps but leave the threat to penguins from set net fishing wide open,” he says.    

A draft Te Kaweka Takohaka mō te Hoiho Threat Management Strategy and accompanying action plan, currently open for consultation, don’t propose any concrete steps to protect the mainland population of hoiho from fishing threats, other than investigating a transition away from set netting.

“We need to do our utmost to protect this species from the threats we can, and set netting is one of them. It’s time for the industry to stop resisting efforts for human or electronic monitoring on their boats, or otherwise stop using set nets in penguin habitat,” says Mr Hague.  

Not all the factors causing the decline of the hoiho are well understood, including disease, starvation and climate change-related issues.

“But the danger posed by set nets is well understood and we have to remove this threat from the hoiho’s environment to ensure they continue to live and breed around our southern coasts,” says Mr Hague.

At the start of the last breeding season, there were 227 nests counted for the genetically distinct mainland population, which takes in the southeast and southern South Island, Stewart Island and Whenua Hou/Codfish Island. This was down from about 600 pairs counted around a decade ago.

The loss of populations on and around the New Zealand mainland would also make the entire species more vulnerable to extinction if the larger populations on the Subantarctic Auckland and Campbell islands were hit by catastrophic events. Knowledge is lacking about the population trends in the southern population.

Current proposals for marine reserves and protected areas in the south-east of the South Island don’t provide any significant protection in areas of South Otago and Southland where hoiho forage and breed.

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