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April 8, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Interview with Sea Sheppard


Māui, Bottlenose, Hector’s, Dusky: these are some of New Zealand’s nine species of dolphins. In New Zealand, we like to think we’re all clean and green; we set an example for the world to see. But the land of the long white cloud has its share of environmental issues—specifically, with conservation. A 2016 study by Professors Elisabeth Slooten and Stephen Michael Dawson, from the University of Otago, showed that there were only 10,000 Hector’s dolphins left in New Zealand’s waters. Their population has halved over the last 50 years. This is a heartbreaking statistic, as these are two of New Zealand’s nine species of dolphin.


Sea Shepherd is a global, non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organisation that has dedicated the past 42 years to protecting wildlife around the globe. Sea Shepherd has launched a number of different campaigns around New Zealand—including, most famously, Operation Nemesis, which focussed on combatting whaling vessels around the Antarctic.


I was able to get in touch with Grant Meikle, a volunteer at Sea Shepherd. Grant is currently the campaign leader for Operation Pahu, which monitors trawling practices in New Zealand waters to protect the nationally endangered Hector’s dolphin. Trawling is a method of fishing in which a vessel drags a net (the trawl) along the ocean floor to catch fish (think: the “Keep Swimming” scene in ^Finding Nemo^).


Grant told me about the devastating impact trawling has had on the dolphin population.


Grant: In the last 40 years we’ve lost, on average, 800 Hector’s dolphins. There have been a number of governments over the years that have put protection in place. The problem is [the restrictions] are only up to waters that are up to 100 metres deep, so the dolphins are actually getting caught outside of the protection zones. What we are doing is patrolling those waters for illegal fishing and trawling activity.


Finn: This obfuscating around the law seems to be the main way in which trawlers get away with not having to face the consequences of catching dolphins while fishing. You’re clearly passionate about this.


Grant: Yeah, absolutely we are [passionate]. You don’t want to see the dolphins go extinct.

At the moment there are a lot of conservation groups focussing on what’s happening in the North Island, but at the same time, we are having this silent slaughter in the South Island.


Finn: I had some understanding of the plight of the dolphins further south, but clearly not to the fullest extent.   

Grant: It’s not illegal if you catch a dolphin in a net outside of the protection area, it’s not their registered habitat; it’s not illegal to catch it but it’s illegal not to report it. One or two per cent of the dolphins that get caught get reported, probably because there’s a reporting service on board.


Finn: Seems that’s yet another loophole for reckless fishermen to exploit. Surely there are things such as breeding programmes in place to combat that sort of thing?


Grant: That’s the problem: the females only live for 20 years and they’ll have three or four calves throughout a life cycle. The other problem they have is that they are such curious animals, if they’re out and about and they see a net they’re going to swim towards it.


Finn: What other kinds of challenges do you come across on your average patrol?


Grant: Timing, mostly. We get out whenever we can, if conditions allow, and we dock in on the weekends. Every now and then I’ll take a day off or half a day off and go head out, but people have got kids to look after, and other jobs, so you can’t spend all of your time at sea.


Finn: When you’re out at sea, what does a typical patrol day look like for you?


Grant: Well, our patrol vessel, The Loki, is weighted for 12 people, but I usually aim for around five or six. Sometimes, we’ll get trawlers—most recently, we got two. Most of them are bottom trawling for flounder and the net will be basically a metre off the bottom of the ocean floor. We can’t tell if they’re using a low headline or not; it’s impossible for us to tell if the net is in the water.


Finn: And what do you do when you find someone like that, are there certain protocols to follow?


Grant: When that happens, we go over, stop the trawler, and see what it’s doing. We then try not to interfere with what they’re doing. We’ll carry on to the nearest port and report it.


Finn: Have there been times where handling a trawler hasn’t gone your way?


Grant: Oh, of course. One evening we were out patrolling, probably around six o’clock, and we were going up through Taiaroa Head. We stopped to watch the seals swimming around the rocks, watching as they rolled over and flipped their flippers at us, they love putting on a show. There were blue penguins all around The Loki as well, and on the right, coming from the nesting boxes just below the albatross colony. We just stood there and watched. It was a beautiful evening, there was wildlife all around us. All of a sudden, here’s this trawler, going straight through the middle of it.


We photographed him, and he took a photograph of us and posted it with the caption “look at this shit box that I saw at Taiaroa Head tonight”, and I just thought; sure what you’re doing is legal, but why would you disturb something like that?


Finn: What was your immediate reaction after seeing that?


Grant: All I could think was ‘why?’. It was such a pristine area, and he was trawling the harbour, and I’ve seen the same boat do it twice. To me, it just showed how far apart [Sea Shepherd and Local Fishermen] are.


It seemed that there was a real sense of disappointment when Grant told me this; he truly wished that the locals using the area to fish, and Sea Shepherd would aid each other, rather than being seemingly at each other’s throats. Talking with Grant opened my eyes to the widespread need for increased protection of our marine life, seeing how some areas are given more attention than others. It’s clear that these creatures, along with the rest of New Zealand’s marine life, deserve a fighting chance. Grant and the volunteers at Sea Shepherd go above and beyond to preserve New Zealand’s species, but the commercial fishing vessels continue to prey. We must do our part if we want to see creatures like the Hector’s dolphin stay in our waters.

If you wish to get involved with Sea Shepherd, or learn more about their various operations around New Zealand, you can visit


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