Covid-hit business owners fear they'll be crippled by Bay of Islands dolphin sanctuary

Bay of Islands tourism businesses, already hit hard by Covid-19 border closures, now fear a marine mammal sanctuary could leave them stranded without profits.
The Department of Conservation is proposing the sanctuary for the entire Te Pwhairangi, Bay of Islands, to halt a massive decline in bottlenose dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphin numbers dropped 91 per cent since 1999, from 278 to 26 in 2020. Calf mortality is 75 per cent the highest in New Zealand and internationally and no new calves were born in the summer of 2019/20.

The proposal, backed by hap, involves a complete ban on swimming with marine mammals, and would require all boats to stay 400m from marine mammals, and to stop if they come closer than 400m.

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Two areas around Russell's Tapeka Point and Roberton Island/Motuarohia would be made marine mammal safe zones, with a maximum speed of five knots at all times.

Department of Conservation/Supplied
The Department of Conservation's proposal is for the entire Bay of Islands to be a marine mammal sanctuary, with two areas also designated marine mammal safe zones.

But tourism operators said while they supported saving dolphins, the sanctuary proposal was unworkable, as the bottlenose dolphins liked to interact with boats for long periods of time.

Paihia Dive owner Craig Johnson said the catch-all of all marine mammals could shut off diving spots, like the Canterbury wreck, because there are fur seals nearby.

The proposal also said divers would not be allowed to interact with marine mammals if approached by them, but dive operators cannot control what divers might do if a dolphin approaches them, he said.

[DOC is] attributing a heck of a lot onto boat activity and not focusing on food supply, or water quality or sedimentation they are throwing it all onto boats, and commercial operators are wearing all the costs.

Paihia Dive owner Craig Johnson says the marine mammal sanctuary will impact commercial operators the most.

Johnson said the sanctuary would be extra pressure for his business, already down 60 to 70 per cent due to the lack of international tourists.

Tammy Jameson, from Bay of Islands Snorkelling, agreed the proposal was extremely over the top.

Weve all been hammered by Covid at the moment, and we don't need extra stress on our jobs and livelihoods.

Jameson was concerned she would not be able to see dolphins at a 400m distance, and the requirement to stop until the dolphins had moved off could leave her small boat exposed to the elements for about 40 minutes.

Tammy Jameson from Bay of Islands Snorkelling says the local pod of dolphins is very territorial, keeping other dolphins out of the bay.

[In bad weather] there's no way Im going to stop and wait for the dolphins to leave that's putting my passengers and the safety of my boat in danger.

Jameson drew on 30 years experience with dolphins in the bay, and said numbers have declined because one pod has taken over the area and was aggressively defending its territory.

DOC was wrong to say no calves were born in 2019/2020, as one was born during the pandemic and nicknamed Panda, she said.

Rachael Biggins from Barefoot Sailing Adventures supported a marine mammal sanctuary and accepted changes needed to be made to help save the dolphins.

Paihia Dive owner Craig Johnson fears the marine mammal sanctuary will cut off dive spots like the Canterbury wreck.

But she questioned how the rules would be workable for commercial operators, who have timetables and the safety of their passengers to consider.

Sailing vessels would be more impacted by the rules, as they were more dependent on the elements and could need to tack through the 5-knot marine mammal safe zones.

Biggins said her business had also been impacted by Covid, with demand significantly reduced.

We know it isnt going to come back as strong as it was in the past; surely that has some benefit for the dolphins as well?

Explore Group
Tourists still get plenty of joy out of seeing dolphins in the Bay of Islands, according to Explore Bay of Islands managing director William Goodfellow.

But the proposed sanctuary was supported by William Goodfellow from Explore Bay of Islands, which runs dolphin-watching tours.

Our business relies on the welfare of the marine mammals, the dolphins, and anything that can be done to improve the welfare and help the population sustain is a good thing.

The sanctuary will also help with marketing, as it will show the Bay of Islands is a great place for marine mammals, he said.

Goodfellow was pleased the rules would apply to everyone including recreational boats as commercial operators have already been banned from swimming with dolphins.

Explore Group
The marine mammal sanctuary will help in promotions of the Bay of Islands, according to Explore Bay of Islands managing director William Goodfellow.

While the 400m rule could make it harder for passengers to see dolphins on Explore cruises, there will still be some good viewing and tours will be based around education on the species, he said.

Explore Group had managed to navigate the impacts of Covid-19 by reducing its boat size, but Goodfellow said international tourists would be warmly welcomed when they returned.

DOC's Bay of Islands senior ranger marine, Dr Cat Peters, said all feedback on the proposal was welcome, with the official public consultation opening April 12.

The purpose is not to stop anything in the bay, but to ensure that theres a future for the bay where dolphins are in it.

While Covid may have reduced the number of tourist boats on the water, this summer saw a 35 per cent increase in recreational boat numbers.

The proposed rules were simpler than the current rules, which included no swimming with whales, and no swimming with dolphins if a calf is present.

Peters agreed the bottlenose dolphins liked to interact with boats, but she hoped the proposal would be like a rehab for them, encouraging them to return to their normal behaviour.

They're doing this almost adrenaline junky behaviour, interacting with the boats, but they aren't feeding and resting.

Dr Cat Peters says the aim is to allow dolphins and people to interact in harmony in the Bay of Islands. (File photo)

The rules allowed boaties to enjoy watching the dolphins, without dictating their behaviour, she said.

While boats should stay 400m away from marine mammals, the rules included a second requirement to use reasonable means to stop if the mammals were closer than 400m, giving a back-up if they are not seen, Peters said.

The wording originally said yachts should drop sail but that will now be changed so skippers can decide how they stop and safety for people is an important factor, she said.

Stop by any means, as long as it is safe to do so ... Nobody is going to prosecute if you're doing something for a safety reason.

Peters agreed there was a territorial dolphin pod in the Bay of Islands, and said marine mammals were under all kinds of other threats, including climate change and low fish stocks.

But dolphin numbers were dropping nearly 10 times as fast in the bay than in the wider north-east coast, and the only thing that is different is the amount of time the dolphins are spending with boats, she said.

If we address that, they can start to cope with everything else.

While Peters agreed there was a bottlenose dolphin calf born in lockdown last year, this was outside the normal summer breeding season, when warm waters give calves the best chance of survival.

If mums are choosing not to have babies during the environmentally best time because of disturbance ... thats a worry in itself.


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