Bay of Islands tourism operators fear a new marine mammal sanctuary will "massively impact" their businesses, which have already been slammed by the economic fallout of Covid-19.
Diving companies and tour-boat operators say the proposed Bay of Islands Marine Mammal Sanctuary, announced by the Government on February 25, is not workable in its current form.
The proposal - which will be open for public submissions - means swimming with dolphins will be banned, and vessels must maintain a 400m distance from marine mammals in the entire Te Pēwhairangi area.
Vessels will be restricted to 5 knots within two "marine-mammal safe zones".
Paihia Dive owner Craig Johnston said there would be "major and unintended consequences" for businesses if the 400m rule applied to fur seals.
"If they're applying it to seals as well that has the potential to cut off a lot of the coastal areas for diving and fishing.
"If they're on the rocks at Deep Water Cove, you couldn't dive the Canterbury.
"If they're on the rocks at Bird Rock, that's one of our most popular dive sites, there's pretty much fur seals there all the time.
"They're not like a pod of dolphins which will swim past. A fur seal can sit there all day."
Johnston said he wasn't against the proposal, but fur seals should be excluded.
"It's not just us as scuba divers, it will have an effect on fisherman, and free diving and spearfishing.
"Small businesses in the Bay of Islands are already under a lot of pressure [due to Covid] – it adds another layer to that."
The sanctuary aims to protect marine mammals - especially bottlenose dolphins, which are on the brink of extinction in the Bay of Islands.
Research shows a dramatic decline of 91 per cent in the local bottlenose dolphin population, from 278 in 1999 to just 26 recognisable individuals in 2020.
Of these 26, only 16 now frequently visit the Bay.
Public consultation starts on April 12 and runs for 28 days.
Adam Prendergast said the proposal "must be viable for businesses as well".
It would "massively" affect his two businesses - Sea Shuttle Bay of Islands water taxi and Island Getaway tours, which offers cruises, private charters and island tours.
Reducing speed to 5 knots would be difficult for his water-taxi business, which runs on a tight schedule.
He is also concerned about the 400m distance rule, because fur seals are often present when water taxis drop off and pick up hikers from the Cape Brett landing.
"Are we going to be restricted from going in there?
"Most times we go there are fur seals. The moment a boat turns up they jump in the water and start playing and showing off. They're quite curious creatures."
Prendergast also wants clarity around keeping 400m from dolphins.
"If dolphins are in the area and they're sticking around for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour, at which point do I take off and continue my day?
"As an operator that's not going to work.
"I don't think what they've got at the moment is going to work, especially for an area hit so hard by Covid. People are already struggling."
Northland Dive owner Shane Housham agreed, saying his business would also be affected.
Seals regularly haul out [when seals come ashore to rest, moult or breed] around Cape Brett, Deep Water Cove and Bird Rock, he said.
"If we're going to dive the Canterbury and they haul out we won't be able to. If a seal comes out - which they do a bit in winter - that's a good chunk of our business.
"I agree with the restrictions around the dolphins, but not with lumping seals in with them. They're a totally different animal.
"It'll make it hard when they pop out on a rock and go to sleep."
Dive Zone Bay of Islands owner Ben Taylor said he'd like clarity around what to do if dolphins approach them and want to hang around.
"If we're diving and dolphins turned up then we'd need to know what to do then.
"According to their rules we would have to end the dive.
"But because of safety reasons, we can't just go straight up because you need to decompress ... you can't immediately go up and end the dive."
Department of Conservation (DoC) marine biodiversity senior ranger Cat Peters said the 400m rule would apply to all marine mammals that were in the water, including fur seals.
When on land people should keep 50m distance from them, she said.
"It's important we have the blanket rule for all marine mammals in the Bay of Islands," Peters said.
"Part of the proposal is keeping it simple for people, and not having different rules for different species."
Peters encouraged businesses and residents to make a submission with their concerns.
Taylor said overall, he supports the move to protect marine mammals.
"Something needs to be done, it's definitely an issue and we can't carry on the way it is.
"But obviously it's not going to suit everyone.
"We need to work through with DoC and the Government to do something but they can't cut everyone off - there's businesses that rely on it."