Fishing operators say proposals aimed at saving the iconic Maui dolphin come at too high a price.

Towns up and down New Zealand that rely heavily on fishing for their survival fear local fishing businesses could go to the wall under proposals aimed at protecting native dolphins, an industry executive warns.

Tim Pankhurst, chief executive of Seafood New Zealand, says hundreds of small fishermen could be put out of business and communities such as Kawhia, Raglan and New Plymouth take a big hit if the proposals go ahead – and may not save one dolphin.

His comments come as the government is considering proposals to strengthen protection measures through the Threat Management Plan (TMP) to arrest declining numbers of Maui dolphins.

Maui dolphins, which are found on the west coast of the North Island, are considered critical under the New Zealand Threat Classification system; the Department of Conservation (DOC) estimates there are only between 57 and 75 over the age of one left in existence.

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Among the proposals being considered by DOC and Fisheries New Zealand are steps to extend current restrictions on trawling and net setting where the dolphins live and an increase of the boundaries of marine animal sanctuaries. More than 13,000 submissions were received on the proposals; the government is expected to make a decision soon.

But Pankhurst says there are already significant restrictions in place with 6,000sq km of ocean closed to fishing in Maui dolphin waters. Any further restrictions must be based on solid science which, he believes, the latest proposals are not.

He says no Maui dolphin has been confirmed as caught by as commercial fisherman since 2002 while he says DOC says toxoplasmosis, a cat-borne disease, has been scientifically proven to be killing 16 times more Maui than fishing.

Pankhurst says the seafood industry has devoted a great deal of time, effort and money to reduce risks to marine mammals and will continue to do so: "We strongly support efforts to save the Maui."

The seafood industry is in favour of extended exclusion zones - but only if based on scientific evidence – and measures such as the use of dolphin-deterring technology on vessels.

"But what's proposed is simply to close down vast areas of the coast to fishing," he says. "These are small fishing operators, not large corporates. They are the people who supply local fish and chip shops and who are fishing small, inshore quotas.

"All are committed to protecting the environment and biodiversity – they hate the thought of catching a dolphin and their fishing practices reflect that," Pankhurst says.

Keith Mawson, owner of New Plymouth-based Egmont Fisheries, says Taranaki fishermen have been dealt blow after blow since the early 2000s in the pursuit of dolphin protection and many jobs are on the line as a result.

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"The first set of restrictions was imposed in 2003 which pushed our net fishermen further off the coast to four nautical miles," he says. "In 2008 the restrictions were extended to seven nautical miles."

He says restrictions were moved further south to Hawera in 2012 and the mandatory use of observers introduced: "We have had a massive amount of observer coverage in the Taranaki region, yet since that time there have been no sightings of Maui."

Mawson operates four set net vessels and one trawler and employs 20 people in his processing factory and retail shop.

"If I only lose two of the five fishermen, it is debatable whether we can continue to operate," he says. "We need a certain volume of fish coming through the factory to keep the staff employed, keep the business operating."

Other proposals being considered by the government include the placing of further restrictions on seismic surveying and seabed mining in areas where the dolphins live, and placing a moratorium on commercial tourism permits to view Maui dolphins.

The TMP is also looking at developing an action plan to address the impact of the disease toxoplasmosis. An infection spread through cat faeces, it enters the marine ecosystem through rain water and runoff and dolphins can become infected by consuming contaminated water or prey.