Maui & Hector's Dolphins

Project Jonah Take Action Hector and Maui Dolphins

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, this has shrunk to around 15,000. 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.



Hector's and Maui's dolphins are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1978. The Department of Conservation (DoC) Threat Classification system ranks Maui dolphin as ‘nationally critical’, and Hector’s dolphin as ‘nationally endangered’.

Both subspecies are classified on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Hector’s are listed as ‘endangered’, and Maui’s as ‘critically endangered’. This means that both species face extinction in the wild. 

Human induced threats are the main problem for both species. Boat strike, mining, construction, coastal development, pollution, marine tourism, marine farming and climate change are all hugely dangerous for Hector’s and Maui’s. 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. 188 Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins have been killed in set nets since 1973.

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 is being done?

Following intense lobbying by members of the public and groups like Project Jonah, the Government introduced a Threat Management Plan (TMP) in 2008. Among the measures introduced, was the establishment of marine mammal sanctuaries, and restrictions on set and trawl netting.

The Maui’s section of the TMP was reviewed in 2012 following the continued decline of the species, and another death as a result of set netting. The government implemented an interim set net ban between Pariokariwa Point and Harewa, out 2 nautical miles, short of the IWC and ICUN recommendations.

Whilst this particular ban zone was later extended, measures have not gone far enough. An estimated 110-150 dolphins are caught every year in set nets around New Zealand.

In 2018 the government began a review of the full Hectors and Maui TMP, with a formal public consultation scheduled for November-December.

The results of this review will be presented to Ministers in early 2019.

Why it's not enough?

Around New Zealand dolphins continue to die as a result of set-netting. In February 2018 a pod of five Hector’s dolphins died after being caught in a set net 6 nautical miles off Banks Peninsula. To ensure the survival of both Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins, deaths from fishing must be zero.

To make matters worse, the government is stalling on its proposal to put cameras onto commercial fishing vessels. Cameras would ensure that set net and trawling restrictions are obeyed and bycatch of marine mammals is reported. Currently we rely only on verbal reports from fishermen.

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, on the West Coast of North Island.

New threats are emerging:

  • In 2016, a Hector’s dolphin that washed up on a beach near Kaikoura was found to have died from tuberculosis, a disease never before found in cetaceans. How the dolphin contracted tuberculosis is still unknown, but there are fears it could be related to domestic pets, or animal husbandry.

Take Action

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:
  • Banning the use of set netting. South Australia, and several States in the US have already done so, and this is the only way to ensure no more Hector’s or Maui’s die in this way.
  • Extending the existing trawl ban out to 100m water depth, or 7 nautical miles at a minimum.
  • Following through with the plan to put cameras onto commercial fishing boats. This is the only reliable way to know if the regulations are working.
  • 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.
  • Signpost fishing restrictions clearly both online, and in places where endangered marine species are found.

Other things you can do

  • Report any set nets or trawlers operating within an area closed to these types of fishing by phoning the Ministry of Fisheries (MFish) hotline: 0800 4 POACHER - 0800 476 224
  • In areas where set net fishing is allowed, be careful where and how you use set nets. Stay with your net all the time and check it regularly. Remember it only takes a few minutes to drown a dolphin. If dolphins are around, take your net out of the water immediately, and encourage others to do the same. Better yet, stop using set nets and only buy sustainable caught fish. Get yourself a Best Fish Guide
  • If you see a Maui’s dolphin, report it to to DOC on 0800 DOC HOT - 0800 362 468 or WWF on 0800 4 MAUIS - 0800 462 847. With a population estimate of less than 55 Maui's every sighting is important
  • Be boat smart around dolphins. Use a ‘no wake’ boat speed within 300 metres of them. New Zealand law makes it illegal to harass any marine mammal. If you see a dolphin being harassed, or find a stranded or dead dolphin, report it straight away to DOC on 0800 DOC HOT - 0800 362 468 or call us 0800 4 WHALE  - 0800 4 94253
  • Fishing gear and other rubbish thrown overboard poses a serious risk to Maui’s dolphins and other marine life. Make sure you take any rubbish back to shore and please retrieve any abandoned 'ghost' nets that you come across
  • Make sure your rubbish stays out of storm water drains. Secure lids on bins and pick up any rubbish you see in the gutter or on the beach. Organise beach clean ups or join us for a scheduled event
  • Make a donation to Project Jonah so that we can continue to give these animals a voice
Report a Stranding
Become a Marine Mammal Medic-PINK-NEW
Like us on Facebook
About our company
Enter a succinct description of your company here
Contact Us
Enter your company contact details here