25 May 2013

Conservationists call for wider set net ban to save yellow-eyed penguins

Yellow-eyed penguin.
Photo credit: Craig Mckenzie
NEW ZEALAND – Forest & Bird has called for an immediate extension to a ban on commercial and recreational set-netting around Otago Peninsula – a move that has angered the area’s commercial fishermen, the Otago Daily Times reported.

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

She said the current 4km-wide set net ban around the Otago Peninsula’s coast should be extended to around 20km, as far as yellow-eyed penguins are known to forage.

“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.”

Forest & Bird’s proposal follows the release of a major new international review undertaken by BirdLife International, which found that set nets kill more than 400,000 seabirds worldwide every year. The results have been published in the Journal of Biological Conservation.

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 to Hector’s dolphins and turtles.

There are fewer than 600 pairs of yellow-eyed penguins left on mainland New Zealand. Around 150 of those live on the Otago Peninsula.

Dr Ursula Ellenberg, a Dunedin penguin expert and contributor to the Birdlife review, said the risk of losing the yellow-eyed penguin colonies on the peninsula is particularly high right now. Fifty-six birds were 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,” she said.

“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.”

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

“Yellow-eyed penguins are one of five species people go to New Zealand’s eco-tourism 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.”

But Otakou fisherman Neil McDonald disagrees. He told the Otago Daily Times, “I've fished here for 33 years and it's just not true. Set nets do not catch yellow-eyed penguins, or Hector's dolphins or Maui dolphins.

“If they've got proof, then let's see it. Bring the evidence to the table ... These are international figures and have no relevance to New Zealand at all. They need to substantiate it.”

Wider set net ban urgently needed to save yellow-eyed penguins [media release], 20 May 2013, Forest & Bird
Fishermen angry at call to extend set net ban by Nigel Benson, 20 May 2013, Otago Daily Times

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