Māui’s Dolphin: Going, Going, Gone?

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Clean, green New Zealand. With a dirty little secret. We are on track to becoming the first country in the world to cause the extinction of a marine dolphin. The smallest in the world - the Maui dolphin.

Clean, green New Zealand. With a dirty little secret. We are on track to becoming the first country in the world to cause the extinction of a marine dolphin. The smallest in the world – the Māui’s dolphin.

I struggle to see how New Zealand’s marketing and PR could recover. The hobbit of the ocean is native to New Zealand waters, ours to enjoy, ours to protect.

Split into two subspecies, the Hector’s roam the south, while the elusive Māui’s take refuge on the West Coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Although both are considered endangered, the Māui’s population is critical. With less than 10% of the original 2000 dolphins, the remaining 60 are on the brink of extinction.

The source of decline is at the hands of the commercial fishing industry where trawl, setnet and driftnet methods are detrimental to these dolphins. Through bycatch and reduced food availability, commercial fishing accounts for 95% of Māui’s mortalities. An average of approximately 5 fishing related deaths per year – that the current population can simply not afford.

Māui’s dolphins are almost the rarest marine mammal in the world, second only to the Mexican Vaquita. With a remaining population of 30 individuals, the species share twin fates, commercial fishing, particularly setnet bycatch driving their decline.

Boating and tourism, oil exploration, pollution, predation and disease contribute to the remaining 5% of mortalities. Sterility or death by toxoplasmosis is common and believed to occur as a result of land based runoff and pollution.

The smallest dolphin in the world, they are the size of your average 10 year old child (1.4m), and easily identified by their unique rounded dorsal fin – similar to one of Mickey mouse’s ears.

Unfortunately they seldom live past 22 years and with a late sexual maturity of 7-9 years, they reproduce very slowly. With a pregnancy occuring once every 2-4 years, population growth is limited to 2% a year, if full protection is enforced.

Having such large brains, they exhibit complex social behaviour. Pods of 2-8 are generally comprised of all male, or all females and calfs. Like humans, young are playful, blowing bubbles and enjoying ‘toys’ like seaweed.

Their population range is small just like them, living only in shallow coastal waters up to 100m in depth. This makes them surprisingly easy to protect. But if it was that simple it would have been done.

The main barrier to implementation comes down to money, or lack thereof. With fishing vessels expected to travel further out, past the 100m depth contour, costs will be higher and incentives may be required.

With promises of electronic monitoring on boats, it’s time for the Government to cough up. Only a single figure percentage of boats in the area have an observer on board, and bycatch continues to go unreported. Why? Because it’s bad for business. No one wants a side of Māui’s Dolphin with their fish and chips.

An attractive option is for the Government to support local industries to transition into dolphin safe fishing methods. Harmful techniques such as set-net and trawl would be replaced with long-line fishing, which poses no direct threat to the dolphins.

Business Economic Research Ltd reported that it would cost as little as $26 million dollars to make the shift to Maui-friendly fishing methods. The same figure proposed by the government to change our New Zealand flag design. A small price to pay for the survival of a species.

Year after year, the International Whaling Commission calls on the New Zealand Government to put their money where their mouth is and provide full protection. And year after year, propositions are rejected.

The reality is that the Māui’s population will continue to steadily decline unless urgent action is taken. Current protection measures are feeble, with less than half of their tiny habitat free from set-net and trawl.

A small victory for our dolphins; earlier this year Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on oil exploration, protecting the Māui’s habitat, and the entirety of New Zealand. However mining is still at large, with exploration permits granted inside their small marine sanctuary even today. The most recent company is looking to ‘dredge the ocean floor for minerals’, causing long term destruction to seafloor habitats and nursing areas for young fish, as well as threatening the small mammals.

Fortunately all is not grim, and our small country has a large number of individuals fighting tirelessly for their survival.

This is true of the researchers such as Professor Liz Slooten, who has dedicated her life’s work to produce the valuable research behind the implementation of marine protected areas. She is at the forefront of the battle against the fishing industries, using science and public education to turn the tide for these aquatic hobbits.

New Zealand is facing pressure to save the world’s rarest dolphin at an international scientific meeting in what conservationists say is a test of the nation’s “clean, green” credentials.

But she’s not the only one who can help our flippered friends! You can get involved in the conservation of these incredible animals by educating yourself and others on their plight. There are many online petitions as well as local protests to attend, but nothing beats the good old handwritten letter. Address it to the Prime Minister, Minister of Conservation, and your local MP, urging them to implement full protection. Also donations to Marine Conservation organisations working to protect marine environments in New Zealand, will help the continued research of our dolphins down-under!

There is still time, but not much. Does New Zealand want its clean-green reputation tarnished, as the first country in the world to directly cause the extinction of a marine dolphin? Within our lifetime.

Links to organisations working on Maui’s and Hector’s Dolphin Conservation:

  1. New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust
  2. NABU International
  3. WWF New Zealand
  4. Department of Conservation
  5. Hector’s Protectors

Contributor: Veronica Rotman

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