|Dr Michael Morris
Animal welfare writer
Once again, the Government is calling for submissions on plans to save the Maui's dolphin.
In 2007, the Ministry of Fisheries and Department of Conservation published a Threat Management Plan, setting out a series of options for preserving the Maui's dolphin, including a ban on set nets in certain areas where Maui's dolphins have been found, and extending marine mammal sanctuaries under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
The 2007 Plan set out three options, providing varying degrees of protection, but with the proviso that the greater the protection accorded the dolphins, the higher the likelihood of financial harm to the fishing industry.
Intensive lobbying by the fishing industry has ensured that while set netting has been banned in some areas, this does not extend far enough, and nor does it include harbours, where Maui's dolphins have been found. This has inevitably meant further decline in the population.
In 2007, it was estimated that 111 Maui's dolphins still existed. The estimate for 2012 is just 55, meaning that extinction is perilously close.
The authors of the 2007 Threat Management Plan were aware of the intrinsic value accorded to rare and endangered species, and certainly take the threat of extinction seriously. One concern that was not addressed, however, is the value of individual dolphins.
Dolphins are widely regarded as intelligent and self-aware species, and therefore the harm caused to the dolphins as individuals needs to be taken into account. The New Zealand public has a double standard regarding the value of individual animals' lives. So for example, slaughtering of whales and dolphins by the Japanese generates outrage, but nobody turns a hair at the millions of farm animals slaughtered every day throughout the world.
Nevertheless, a double standard is better than no standard at all, and I support the government stand opposing Japanese whaling. To be consistent with this opposition and the sensibilities of the public, any policy on dolphin protection must take into account the worth of individual dolphins as well as the Maui's dolphin as a species.
The 2007 Threat Management Plan acknowledges that set netting presents the greatest threat to Maui's dolphins. Dolphin experts have stated that a complete ban on set netting is required if there is any hope of staving off extinction of this species.
The Threat Management Plan, however, went short of recommending a complete ban, stating that one could never be completely certain that fishing practices contribute to dolphin mortality.
The fishing industry has made use of this uncertainty to lobby against a complete set net ban. Such self-interested reasoning is, however, flawed for several reasons, outlined below.
Firstly, the possible loss of livelihood is also uncertain. It is quite possible that fishers will be able to adapt to new regulations, either by switching to different methods or by retraining in a new industry. Lack of certainty is no excuse to do nothing when the environment is at stake. This principle was explicitly put forward at the Rio Summit and was agreed to by New Zealand delegates. The principle that we must take into account stakes as well as odds when making environmental decisions has been enshrined in environmental law and policy as the “precautionary principle”, and is an important component of New Zealand environmental legislation, including the Fisheries Act (section 10 (d)).
In this case, the stakes could not be higher. Death is forever, and extinction is forever. On the other hand, even in the worst case scenario, livelihoods can be replaced. New Zealand has a sound social welfare and tertiary education system, and in the worst case scenario, fishers can easily retrain and receive government support while they are studying. Support could even be extended to communities, in a similar way to the support given to West Coasters affected by the government decision to ban logging of native forests.
The New Zealand government ratified the Convention on Biodiversity, and this commits us to protecting threatened species. There is no national or international legislation that commits us to protecting inefficient or immoral businesses who refuse to comply with legislative standards that most of the country accepts to be reasonable.