By David Tong

Last week, by the narrowest of margins, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approved a seabed mining application by Trans-Tasman Resources.

The application was to dig up 50 million tonnes of seabed in the South Taranaki Bight each year for the next 35 years -- in our critically endangered Maui dolphins' habitat.

The EPA was split 50/50, and only approved the application because of the chairman's casting vote.


To put this in perspective, Trans-Tasman Resources is proposing to dig up more than eight times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza every year for the next 35 years.

The proposed mining site sits within a biodiversity hotspot -- as well as Maui dolphins, over 14 kinds of whale live there, including a newly discovered population of critically endangered blue whales.

This operation would create a new threat to New Zealand's precious Maui dolphins, with the latest Department of Conservation estimate putting their population at only 63 adults.

Less than 30 per cent of Maui dolphin habitat is protected from set netting, and less than 8 per cent is protected from both set netting and conventional trawling. While, as the EPA noted, Maui dolphins swim in the northern part of their habitat more often than in the South Taranaki Bight, they need a real sanctuary across their entire range.

Because their population is now so low, killing even one more Maui dolphin would significantly increase their risk of extinction. Top global scientists in the International Whaling Commission's Small Cetaceans Subcommittee have repeatedly called on the New Zealand Government to protect Maui dolphins throughout their whole habitat.

We could be on the verge of a breakthrough that would protect Maui dolphins and ensure that West Coast fishers aren't pushed off the water. Already, two fishing companies have recognised Maui dolphins' precarious position, committing to removing the fishing threat in their habitat. Now, we are working with them to call on the Government to support fishing communities in switching to dolphin-safe fishing.

It makes no sense to introduce a new threat to these critically endangered animals.

The EPA downplayed the risk to Maui dolphins on the basis of how rarely they swim near the mining site. However, the Department of Conservation, fishing companies, and conservation organisations like WWF all aim for the Maui dolphin population to recover. When that happens, the dolphins will more frequently swim near the proposed mining operation, which will last for 35 years.

Extraction: Trans-Tasman Resources will use an undersea crawler to suck up ironsand from the seabed at a rate of up to 8000 tonnes an hour
Extraction: Trans-Tasman Resources will use an undersea crawler to suck up ironsand from the seabed at a rate of up to 8000 tonnes an hour

At the end of the day, claimed economic benefits pushed conservation and community interests aside -- even though all the EPA could conclude for the South Taranaki economy was that there would be "some benefit", which they could not even quantify.

Organisations, individual people, and iwi have said they will appeal this decision.

Maui dolphins should not face an uncertain new threat from sand mining. Instead, we need to find ways in which people can live and work that are in harmony with nature.

WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) is engaging with fishers to achieve this because we believe a more prosperous future for New Zealand lies in respecting our environment and its precious wildlife.

David Tong
David Tong

David Tong is a campaigner for WWF-New Zealand (World Wide Fund for Nature)