New Zealand’s inaction on turtle bycatch risks reputational damage and pushes leatherback turtles closer to extinction


Matthew Hall is Senior Researcher for the Environmental Law Initiative and Visiting Researcher at the Faculty of Law, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, and Ingrid O’Sullivan is Senior Advisor for the Environmental Law Initiative and Visiting Researcher at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

ANALYSIS: Hundreds of endangered sea turtles have been caught in New Zealand’s commercial fisheries since 2002, according to a recent report published by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

At least 80% are leatherback turtles, most likely from their western Pacific subpopulation which is considered critical danger. Catches occur mainly in the surface longline fishery off the east coast of the North Island between January and April.

Although this DOC report is recent, the authors point out that the underlying data has been known to the New Zealand government for years.

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Lack of action to reduce turtle bycatch risks damaging the reputation of New Zealand’s seafood industry.

The DOC report summarizes observer and fisher data. He revealed that 50 leatherback turtles were reported in 2020-2021.

Reporting of bycatch species by fishing vessels is known to under-represent the actual catch numbers and observers are only on board a small percentage of the time.

A report 2021 for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) extrapolated vessel data with observers in the rest of the fishing fleet and estimated the average number of turtles caught in the New Zealand fleet each year to be between 23 and 127.

A leatherback turtle spotted in Tasman Bay.

Ruurd van der Wel

A leatherback turtle spotted in Tasman Bay.

Threat to turtles

To put these bycatch figures into perspective, the estimated population of leatherback turtles in the Western Pacific is as low as 1,000 nesting females per year.

All species of sea turtle found in New Zealand waters – leatherback, green, hawksbill, loggerhead and olive ridley turtles – are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, but the Western Pacific leatherback subpopulation is listed as critically endangered, due to a large and continuing decline in population size.

The DOC report cites other studies of what happens to turtles once they’ve been caught on a fishing line. About 5% died when captured, but many would later die from their wounds.

A study concluded that 27% of turtles snagged outdoors or with a line left attached die after being released. This rises to 42% for those who are addicted to the mouth or ingest the hook. Leatherback turtles are believed to suffer from a slightly higher mortality rate than other turtle species.

The US government authority responsible for marine management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recognizes the impact on turtles of fishing bycatch. He says: “The main threat to sea turtles is their unintentional capture in fishing gear which can lead to drowning or injury resulting in death or impairment.”

The main threat to sea turtles is their unintentional capture in fishing gear (file photo).


The main threat to sea turtles is their unintentional capture in fishing gear (file photo).

New Zealand lacks bycatch mitigation measures

New Zealand currently has no mandatory mitigation measures to prevent turtle bycatch. DOC has a liaison program for protected species which gives advice to fishermen, but the measures are voluntary and unenforceable.

In fact, New Zealand has an exemption from the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) reduction measures based on a low turtle bycatch rate.

However, as the DOC report details, a rate is a questionable way to decide whether mitigation measures should apply – total numbers are what counts for the turtle population. Regardless, the DOC report also suggests that New Zealand has frequently violated the rate below which the exemption applies.

The turtle bycatch figures provided by New Zealand at a recent WCPFC meeting in August paint a different picture from the DOC and MPI reports described here. Only turtles captured while an observer was on board are included.

Observer coverage in these fisheries in New Zealand is low – at just 5.8%, according to a 2016 DOC report. The same report also recommends a review of observer coverage as it is essentially the wrong time and place to monitor turtle catches.

A sea turtle entangled in a fishing net (file photo).


A sea turtle entangled in a fishing net (file photo).

US Mitigation and Legislation

The lack of mitigation in New Zealand stands in stark contrast to other countries. For example, Hawai’i has reduced its turtle bycatch by 90% using a set of measuresincluding hook and bait restrictions, total fishing cap (16 leatherback turtles), individual vessel limits, 100% observer coverage, oceanographic modeling to predict turtle location and closure of high-risk areas.

The United States is not just focused on what is happening in its own fisheries. Laws exist in the United States in part to protect its own fishermen from seafood from countries with lower environmental standards. The intent of these laws is to improve the performance of countries wishing to use US ports or sell their seafood products in the US market.

One of these laws is currently being tested by the environmental organization Sea Shepherd regarding Māui dolphins. The group challenges the US government under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (United States) for his no ban on seafood imports New Zealand fisheries known to affect Māui dolphins.

Another law, the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act is also relevant. It requires NOAA to identify countries whose fishing vessels catch protected marine life shared with the United States and whose measures are less protective than those of the United States.

NOAA undertakes a three-step process of identification, consultation, and certification that may result in denial of access to US ports and potential restrictions on the importation of fish or fish products.

The United States is particularly interested in turtle bycatch. American researchers have estimated that without concerted conservation measures, Pacific leatherback turtles could disappear by the end of this century.

Last year, NOAA identified Mexico and 28 tuna-fishing states under the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas for not having measures “comparable in effectiveness to those of the United States to reduce or end bycatch of sea turtles.

New Zealand has traditionally prided itself on having one of the best fisheries management systems in the world. But unless it takes swift and concerted mitigation action comparable to that of the United States, the New Zealand government is exposing itself to significant legal and reputational risk.

The fate of the Pacific leatherback turtle is also at stake.

This article was originally published on The conversation. Read the original article.


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