On Monday – one year, eight months and 12 days after the government released the alarming news that there were only 55 Maui's dolphins over the age of one left on the planet – the Minister of Conservation finally announced what he intends to do about this wildlife emergency.

The delay speaks volumes about the priority the government is giving to this issue. Much greater priority has been given to seismic surveying work earlier this year -right in the middle of Maui's habitat, using deafening techniques known to be hazardous to marine mammals.

The Minister's plan fails miserably to protect Maui's dolphins. It extends the protected area (where no gill net and trawl fishing is allowed, as these techniques are responsible for 95% of the threat to Maui's dolphins) by only a tiny amount. The Minister claims that this is where other “verified” sightings of Maui's dolphins have been. But in fact there have been many more sightings of Maui's dolphins beyond this area.

The level of proof the government demands before extending the protected area is ludicrous for a population this low. The remaining dolphins might as well be asked to swim to the nearest beach, submit DNA samples for forensic testing, provide a full genealogy and have their location verified by three independent witnesses in order for the Minister to admit Maui's dolphin habitat goes beyond the modest protected area. Why? Because the government does not want to extend the protected area. It is inconveniently located in an area they want to drill for oil, mine for iron sands and which is fiercely fought over by commercial fishers unwilling to adopt more dolphin-friendly fishing methods.

In an attempt to deflect attention from the plight of Maui's dolphins the Minister of Conservation made big of a claim that its southern cousin, Hector’s dolphin, is surviving in higher numbers than previously thought.

To show just how many there are, the government has switched survey methods to count them from an aeroplane. It's a very controversial study which is being contested by New Zealand and international dolphin scientists for the way that sightings have been extrapolated to give a population estimate.

If anything, the Minister should have focused on one of the things that was clear from the Hector's dolphin study: That the habitat of these dolphins extends out to 100 meters depth. If it wasn't for the fact he'd ignored Maui's dolphins sightings that have been reported to the government, and if he'd bothered to listen to New Zealand and international experts (including the International Whaling Commission, Scientific Committee and the World Conservation Congress) and tens of thousands of submissions from New Zealanders, the protected area for Maui's dolphins would have been extended this far. Instead, it only covers a fraction of the area needed.

The Minister is erring on the side of extinction here, and this week's announcement is not a recovery plan, but a template for the demise and extinction of Maui's dolphins. Under the plan, it is only a matter of time before our government has to front up to the International Whaling Commission and confess that it has overseen the extinction of the world's smallest and rarest marine dolphin.

We urge the government to wake up, and follow the clear guidance of local and international experts. The gill net and trawl ban must be extended to cover Maui's entire habitat range: From Maunganui Bluff in the north to Whanganui in the south, from the coastline (including harbours) out to 100 meters depth.

To do any less is to sign a death warrant for this critically endangered species, and what Minister of Conservation wants to be remembered for doing that?

Photo: Hector's dolphin, the southern cousin of Maui's dolphin