First legal measures
From 1861 a series of animal protection acts were passed, with the main aim of seasonally protecting imported game birds such as pheasants. Initially few seabirds were protected. In fact the Animals Protection Act 1880 identified pied stilts, black stilts and the dotterel as ‘native game’, which could be hunted.
The 1880 act was changed many times. In 1921–22 it became the Animals Protection and Game Act, and the list of ‘animals absolutely protected’ was extended to include almost every native bird apart from a few considered to be pests (such as the shag), or game (such as the godwit). Almost all seabirds were protected, and it became an offence to kill them. Attitudes toward native wildlife were changing: the aim moved from maintaining species for hunting purposes to outright protection. Seabirds considered to be game were among the last native birds to be protected – under the Wildlife Act 1953.
British settlers brought with them the tradition of hunting animals for sport. Many native birds were classified as game and could be legally hunted. One Kaipara settler wrote of a day out on the estuary:
‘We came in full sight and range of a large flock of godwit. Up they rose to seek safety in flight, but the music of our guns rang out, feathers flew in all directions, and the dogs had their work cut out for some time’. 1
Degrees of protection
In the 2000s all seabirds except seven species were fully protected. The black-backed gull has no protection as it is deemed a nuisance by farmers. The subantarctic skua and black shag have a partially protected status: they can only be killed if they are damaging occupied land or property on occupied land. The subantarctic skua is not fully protected as Chatham Island farmers consider it a pest. Similarly acclimatisation societies (now Fish & Game New Zealand) had for decades considered shags a threat to juvenile trout, but the evidence does not support this view. Four other seabird species – the pied shag, little shag, sooty shearwater (tītī or muttonbird) and grey-faced petrel – may be hunted or killed subject to notification of the minister of conservation. The sooty shearwater and grey-faced petrel are traditionally harvested as chicks by Māori, which is why these species are also not fully protected.
Fishing and seabirds
Since the 1980s large numbers of seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels have died in longline and trawl fishing grounds, especially in the Southern Ocean where so many of these outsized birds live. Albatrosses and petrels follow fishing boats to scavenge the bait attached to hooks on longlines. If the bait sinks deep enough beneath them the birds might be safe, but some birds like the sooty shearwater can dive as deep as 67 metres. Albatrosses do not dive so deep; the light mantled sooty albatross dives to a comparatively shallow 12 metres.
Fewer pigs, more birds
One of the first official moves to save marine birds was made in 1936. At that time, wild pigs on Aorangi, one of the Poor Knights Islands, had reduced the number of Buller's shearwaters to just 100 breeding pairs. In contrast there were an estimated 500,000 birds on nearby Tawhitirahi Island. The government paid deer cullers to eradicate the pigs, and by 1981 Aorangi’s shearwater population had soared to 200,000 pairs.
Estimates by conservation organisations such as the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society put the number of seabirds dying in New Zealand’s fishing grounds as high as 10,000 a year, a figure disputed by the fishing industry. Scientists estimated that in 2002–3 the number of deaths was 1,789. However, not all fisheries were included in the estimate, so this figure is a minimum.
New Zealand fishing companies and other interested parties have formed a group, Southern Seabird Solutions, to solve the problem of albatross and petrel deaths. They have experimented with a number of measures, among them the Brady Bird Baffler, a device attached to a fishing boat which confuses birds, keeping them off dangerous nets.