All commercial fishing vessels will be required to have plans to ensure they avoid accidentally catching and killing seabirds, under a new action plan carrying a bold target of zero bycatch deaths.

But environment groups say the plan's ambitious goals won't be achieved unless the Government orders cameras on boats.

New Zealand is a global hotspot for seabirds; 145 of the world's 345 species use our waters – the endangered Antipodean albatross and yellow-eyed penguin among them - and 95 species breed in the region.

It's also home to more endemic breeding species than any other country.


But 90 per cent of them are threatened with or at risk of extinction – and it's estimated up to 14,000 seabirds die every year in New Zealand's commercial trawl nets and on longline hooks.

Today, Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage set out the National Plan of Action for Seabirds 2020, focusing on innovative solutions and education to prevent fishing-related deaths.

It means that all vessels at risk of bycatch must have risk management plans for protected species, which will be audited and regularly monitored against Government standards.

"Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds globally," Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said.

"Fisheries bycatch is one of the greatest threats to many of them, along with invasive predators, disease, pollution, a changing climate and associated environmental change.

"That's why the focus of the action plan is to reduce seabird deaths from fishing bycatch."

Nash said the plan would help develop measures to stop bycatch, while improving practices already in use.

"These include bird-scaring lines, weighted longlines, fishing at night, avoiding areas important to seabirds, and reducing discharge that attracts birds to fishing boats," he said.


"Some innovative solutions are already being used. Many current measures have come from industry, who have the technical knowledge needed for workable solutions."

All vessels at risk of bycatch must have risk management plans for protected species, which will be audited and regularly monitored against Government standards. Photo / Warren Buckland
All vessels at risk of bycatch must have risk management plans for protected species, which will be audited and regularly monitored against Government standards. Photo / Warren Buckland

Seafood New Zealand chief executive Jeremy Helson said the industry was already active in finding its own solutions, such as an underwater bait setter that puts hooks beyond the birds' reach, with trials underway co-funded with Government.

"The purchase and deployment of hook-shielding devices has been a collaborative effort between industry and Government, and we have invested in other mitigation and research projects to understand and mitigate the risk of capture."

Vessel management plans were developed by industry and continued to be promoted in the deepwater fleet and inshore fleet, he said.

"All vessels are required to have a plan to minimise seabird bycatch. This is a bespoke, as opposed to a 'one size fits all' solution, as vessels and fishing methods differ.

"The industry has always recognised that this will place added pressure on the fleets but an improved environmental outcome is a goal desired by all."

Helson described the process as one of understanding risks and implementing the most effective options.

"Both the Minister for Fisheries and of Conservation have listened to our requests and implemented research and assistance programmes to help us address this concern."

However, environmental groups argue the plan doesn't go nearly far enough.

"Despite the legal obligation to do so, fishers don't provide reliable data on what birds and other non-target species they catch," Forest & Bird seabird spokesperson Sue Maturin said.

"The Ministry of Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation instead rely on estimates based on the information collected by on-board observers.

"Only 12 per cent of the fishing fleet carry observers at any one time, so is it now imperative the rollout of cameras begin, or this plan to save New Zealand's seabirds will fail."

Data obtained by the group under the Official Information Act revealed a discrepancy between the number of birds that fishers admitted catching, and the MPI's bycatch estimates based on observer data.

For the bottom long line fisheries, reported bycatch over the past five years was 10 to 14 per cent of estimated bycatch, while that reported for surface long line fisheries was 13 to 36 per cent of estimated bycatch.

The Annual Review Report for Highly Migratory Species Fisheries 2018/19 showed only 4 per cent of commercial long lining trips for tuna and swordfish reported non-fish bycatch such as seabirds when there was no observer, but this jumped to 37 per cent when there were Government observers on board.

The Antipodes Island wandering albatross. Photo / Karen Walker
The Antipodes Island wandering albatross. Photo / Karen Walker

Maturin added Forest & Bird was nonetheless pleased that all high seas vessels would have to undergo mandatory compliance checks when stopping in New Zealand ports.

"This is really important for our Antipodean albatrosses, which travel long distances across the Pacific, and are frequently killed by totally unregulated fishing practices on the high seas."

Greenpeace was also concerned the plan didn't require onboard cameras.

"The commercial fishing industry must be required to be transparent and accountable for the threats they pose to seabirds and other ocean life, and for this to happen we need cameras on boats throughout the whole commercial fishing fleet now," said Greenpeace's oceans campaigner, Jessica Desmond.

"The Government should have used this opportunity to implement mandatory legislation to reduce bykill events, but once again we see them pandering to the commercial fishing industry, asking for them to self-report and buy in to schemes.

"The time for this softly-softly approach is truly over."