A controversial plan to set up a marine mammal sanctuary in a bid to address the "radical" decline of dolphins in the Bay of Islands is now open for public submissions.
The Government's proposed sanctuary, which could be in place by August, would be designed to provide a safe haven, particularly for bottlenose dolphins, which could be extinct in the area by next year as a result of the heavy impact of vessels and people over the years.
If adopted, swimming with dolphins will continue to be banned in the Bay, and vessels will not be allowed within 400m of marine mammals. They will also be restricted to 5 knots within two marine mammal safe zones.
Conservation Minister Kiri Allan, who announced the plan in Paihia in February, encouraged public feedback on the plan, which was developed with gā Hapū o te Pēwhairangi.
"The purpose of the sanctuary is to protect the taonga out here," Allan said.
The Department of Conservation opened public consultation on a marine sanctuary proposal for Te Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands) yesterday for a 28-day period.
The sanctuary proposal will address the rapid decline in bottlenose dolphins and proposes measures to protect all marine mammals in the Bay.
"Research shows Te Pēwhairangi has uniquely high levels of vessel and human interaction with bottlenose dolphins which is disrupting normal behaviours critical for survival, such as resting and feeding," said Dr Cat Peters, DoC senior ranger, marine biodiversity.
But Bay of Islands tourism operators fear the 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 sanctuary is not workable in its current form.
The proposal means swimming with dolphins will be banned, and vessels must maintain a 400m distance from marine mammals in the entire Bay 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 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."
The sanctuary includes proposed restrictions of:
• Not being in the water (ie. swimming) within 400m of marine mammals in Te Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands)
• Vessels maintaining a 400m distance from marine mammals in Te Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands)
• A 5-knot speed limit for vessels in two smaller marine mammal safe zones.
The sanctuary is aimed at protecting 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.
More information and submissions:
Visit www.doc.govt.nz/boimms for details on the proposal, including how to make a submission.