New Zealand is home to one of the world’s rarest and smallest marine dolphin – the Hector’s dolphin
. This tiny animal, measuring just 1.4 metres long is unique to our coasts and hovers dangerously on the brink of extinction.
The last 40 years has seen a rapid decline in their numbers. In the 1970s their population sat at around 29,000. Today, fewer than 8,000 dolphins remain. The even rarer sub-species of Hector’s dolphin, the Maui dolphin, is under even greater threat. Their population is now estimated to be less than 80 individuals, with an adult population of just 55 dolphins left.
Hector's and Maui's dolphins are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1978. Hector's dolphins are classified as 'endangered'; Maui dolphins are classified as 'critically endangered' by both the Department of Conservation (DoC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Both species are at risk from human-induced threats that include boat strike, mining, construction, coastal development, pollution, marine tourism, marine farming and climate change. The biggest single known threat, however, is from fishing. Fishing-related threats include entanglement in set nets, trawl nets, drift nets and crayfish pot lines.
Maui dolphins are in a critical situation because their population is so small. As well as being slow breeders (a female has a single calf every 2 - 3 years) they only become sexually mature at a late age (about 7 - 9 years) and their pool of potential mates is very small, meaning that inbreeding may occur.
Inbreeding reduces the gene pool and creates a higher chance of birth defects and genetic problems.
In the 19th Century Maui dolphins were found around the North Island coastline, from Tuaroa Point in Northland to mid-Bay of Plenty. Sadly, they are now only found from Maunganui Bluff (near Dargaville) to just south of New Plymouth - most commonly between Manukau Harbour and Port Waikato. And as Maui dolphins prefer shallow waters, this brings them into direct contact with humans and makes them particularly vulnerable to their main threat: fishing.
What's being done?
Following intense lobbying by members of the public and groups like Project Jonah, the Government announced new measures in 2008 to protect Maui’s dolphins.
In 2012 the Government implemented an interim set net ban between Pariokariwa Point and Harewa, out 2 nautical miles, short of the IWC and ICUN recommendations.
In September 2013, the Government announced a 350sp km extension to this set net ban.
Whilst the increase in protection was a positive start, sadly it didn't go far enough. Many areas still remain unprotected, meaning these animals are still exposed to risk.
Why it's not enough?
For Maui dolphins, the most significant problems are:
- Inside harbours - Maui dolphins are protected at harbour entrances, but not within the harbours themselves. Maui dolphins move around harbours, so set net fishing in these areas pose a risk.
- Offshore outside the 7 nautical mile set net ban and particularly the 2-4 nautical mile trawl ban.
- Protection does not extend far enough south around Taranaki
These critically endangered dolphins need increased protection now! Fishing regulations need to be extended immediately, around Taranaki, including harbours along the west coast of the North Island. By reducing the risks and by taking proactive steps we can help this species recover to a safe population size. Our government will only listen if there is strong public support. We urge you to take action today.
Write a letter or send an email to the Minister for Primary Industries
and the Minister of Conservation
asking them them to strengthen protection measures by:
- Implementing a complete gillnet ban in waters up to 100m deep around the New Zealand coast.
- Strictly enforcing the current set net ban by having enough staff available.
- Extending the existing trawl ban out to 100m water depth, or 7 nautical miles at a minimum.
- Putting in place 100% observer coverage on trawlers throughout the dolphins’ range. This means that any impact fishing has on the dolphins will be reported, rather than relying on voluntary reporting, which is not accurate.
- Funding more research and monitoring. The more we know about the animals, the easier it will be to protect them.
- Implementing a plan for dolphin population recovery. Such a plan (similar to those for kiwi, kakapo and other critically endangered species) will set out a comprehensive series of measures to ensure the species recovers to a viable population.
- Extending the set net fishing ban to include harbours (Manukau, Kawhia and Raglan especially) and the waters around Taranaki. Evidence from dolphin sightings shows the dolphins do visit these areas and are at risk from set net fishing.