A Tauranga fishing boat skipper who was forced to release an estimated 30 tonnes of jack mackerel to save six dolphins caught in his net is being praised for his actions by fishing company Sanford Ltd - and by a boatload of recreational fishers who saw the drama unfold.
"They tried their hardest to get them out of their net without losing their catch, because they had a huge amount of fish in there," said recreational fisher Paul Bowyer.
"It was all boiling up when we arrived and there were dolphins around the outside. The net was already round up by then.
"We don't know how the dolphins got in there. We arrived on site looking for tuna and the dolphins were in the net."
Paul Bowyer said there were about five or six dolphins in the net. The San Columbia crew used the purse seiner's dory (small boat) to try and round up the dolphins and herd them towards a gap they created in the net, but the dolphins just swam around or under it.
About 45 minutes after recreational fishers arrived, the San Columbia crew released the catch.
"One guy was yelling, swearing, and carrying on, he must have been the skipper," said Paul.
The crew was fishing on the middle ground between Motiti and The Mount last Thursday. It was about sunset when the recreational fishers arrived on scene and was approaching dusk by the time the catch was released.
Sanford Ltd general manager corporate communications Fiona MacMillan said the San Columbia crew was purse seine fishing (haul fishing) off the Tauranga coast when half a dozen dolphins swam into the net.
"The crew were determined not to hurt the dolphins in any way if at all possible and they set about trying to free them by lowering the sides of the net.
"Unfortunately this did not encourage the dolphins to swim out, so the skipper faced a tough choice at that point," said Fiona in a statement from the company.
"He either took further steps to try and free the dolphins and risk losing the catch of 30 tonnes of jack mackerel, or he faced the prospect of killing the dolphins.
"He believed that his first priority was to try to save the dolphins, so he made the decision to release one at end of the net near the bow and that enabled all the dolphins to swim away, totally unharmed. In the process all the jack mackerel accidentally escaped too."
While no fish were caught or harmed, Sanford is now required to report the jack mackerel as a catch and it counts against the company's annual catch entitlement for this species, said Fiona.
"Sanford supports what the skipper of the San Columbia and his crew did in this situation. The skipper felt that he simply had no viable choice. He believes that any New Zealander in his position would have done the same and Sanford agrees with him.
"The skipper is a very experienced fisherman who has been fishing for 40 years and he goes to a lot of trouble to avoid fishing when dolphins are present, as he had done several times earlier on that day."
While 30 tonnes of fish is a potentially significant financial loss, Fiona said Sanford's focus was on sustainability.
"Sanford supports the skipper and believes he did the right thing in saving the dolphins and all the fish. Costs comes second in a situation like this."