Five New Zealand sea lions have been captured so far this season in the squid fishery around the Auckland Islands. The season runs from the end of December to May-June.
Director fisheries management Stuart Anderson says these captures are incredibly disappointing.
"Catching 5 sea lions this early in a season is unusual – by comparison, last season 2 sea lions were captured in the whole season, and the season before there were 3 captures," Mr Anderson says.
The commercial southern squid trawl fishery (SQU6T) overlaps with the foraging range of sea lions that breed at the Auckland Islands, which can lead to the accidental capture of sea lions in fishing gear.
"A number of initiatives to protect these important animals are already in place. All vessels fishing in the SQU6T fishery deploy Sea Lion Exclusion Devices, which help sea lions that enter the net to escape instead of being trapped. Unfortunately, not all sea lions escape in time," says Mr Anderson.
"Sea lion deaths have substantially reduced over the last decade since all squid trawlers have fitted approved Sea Lion Exclusion Devices in their nets. Prior to their introduction, there used to be an estimated 70 to 140 sea lion deaths per year in trawl nets.
"Fisheries New Zealand onboard observers, who have observed all fishing effort in the squid fishery this year, noted that the vessels involved were complying with the Operational plan to manage the incidental capture of New Zealand sea lions in the Southern Squid Trawl Fishery.
"The vessels also correctly deployed Sea Lion Exclusion Devices at the time of the captures.
"There is more work to be done to reduce the impacts of fishing on sea lions, and we are always looking to improve the measures we have in place now to avoid interactions.
"Fisheries New Zealand will be consulting later this year on an updated operational plan for the SQU6T fishery.
"The new plan will be based on updated scientific information including an update of the demographic population model for Auckland Islands sea lions, an improved method of estimating interactions between sea lions and squid fishing, and a new approach to estimating the efficacy of Sea Lion Exclusion Devices.
"It's important to note that fishing is just one of a number of threats sea lions are facing. The biggest threat is disease. We need to look at all the threats, which is why Fisheries New Zealand and the Department of Conservation implemented the New Zealand Sea lion/rāpoka threat management plan in 2017.
"Under the threat management plan, a number of research projects are being undertaken to understand and manage threats such as disease, fishing interactions, nutritional stress, and sea lion pup mortalities resulting from pups falling into holes at some breeding sites.
"However, there is plenty more work to do. We don't just want the population to stabilise, we want it to thrive," says Mr Anderson.
The Auckland Islands, lying almost 500km south of the South Island, are home to the largest breeding colony of New Zealand sea lions, comprising roughly 70% of the total sea lion population of over 12,000.