Commercial squid fishing is being blamed for a rapid decline in
the number of sea lions around the South Island's coast.
New research has just been released on the impact of squid fishing, and environmentalists say planned government policy will only make things worse.
Currently there is a maximum number of sea lions that can be killed each season as by-catch, and when this limit is reached the fishing season is closed.
The government is proposing to remove by-catch limits on squid fishing.
The sea lion population is currently in decline and fishing plays a big role in this, said researcher Bruce Robertson at zoology department at Otago University.
"It's where sea lions get caught in nets sufficiently long
enough where they end up drowning."
Green Party fisheries spokesman Gareth Hughes is opposed to the proposal.
"This is unacceptable given the sea lion population is declining, they're naturally critically endangered, same level as the kakapo and Maui dolphin, yet the government has announced open season on sea lions from the squid fishing industry."
The largest sea lion population can be found around the Auckland Islands, 460 kilometres south of Bluff.
There has been a 40% drop in pups at their main breeding ground in the Islands, and around 400 sea lions die each year.
But the fishing industry says its research shows only 20 of those deaths are because of trawling.
George Clements of Deepwater Group told ONE News fishing is to blame for only a small fraction of the deaths.
"Essentially 5% of the decline is attributable to the sea food industry and we're looking for something like 380 animals a year, which have declined or disappeared for reasons unknown."
The fishing industry says that exclusion devices used by trawlers allows sea lions to escape from the nets.
However environmentalists have slammed the claim.
Chairman of the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust Steve Broni says they
regard the animals as a natural treasure.
"We're getting a little bit weary of the fishing industry continually telling us that their science is robust when their paper on the sea lion exclusion devices is fraught with uncertainties which they overlook."
The Greens have started an online petition to gather signatures against the government proposal to remove by-catch limits.
Primary industries minister David Carter's office told ONE News he will not be commenting until a final decision is made in the New Year.
The deadline for submissions on the proposal falls on Friday.