The survival of the world's smallest dolphin is a globally important issue, yet our Government has clearly been defying international and scientific pressure, and the views of most Kiwis, and instead siding with minority industry interests whose fishing operations threaten the survival of Maui's dolphin. It's a story we're hearing all too often these days on oceans, climate and other issues.

Earlier this year a study alerted that the Maui's dolphin population had plummeted to only 55 adults. Maui's dolphins are a separate sub-species to the endangered Hector's dolphin. They are found only on the North Island West Coast, and are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN). The main known threat to the dolphins is entanglement in fishing nets.

As a result of the new population study, the Government set out a proposal for interim measures to protect Maui's dolphin, which would extend the area in which gill nets and trawling were banned. Unfortunately, the proposal didn't go as far as scientists recommended, which was a ban on net fishing throughout Maui's dolphin habitat, from the coast out to 100 meters depth and including harbours (covering the full habitat of the species). The reason for the Government’s weak proposal is opposition from the fishing industry, including claims that the dolphins aren't found in the area (though this fisherman has video to prove they are, and there are certainly cases of dolphin bycatch in the area), and that a ban on net fishing would decimate the local fishery (although there are other ways to catch fish, like line fishing, that do not threaten dolphins).

Back in April the Government asked for feedback on its proposal, so we asked one of NZ's top dolphin scientists, Liz Slooten, to write a guest blog for us about the protection needed to give Maui's dolphins a fighting chance at survival. We also set up a cyberaction for people to make submissions on the plan, and in just over a week almost 9,000  were sent to the Minister of Primary Industries calling for stronger measures than what they were proposing. But, despite the new and alarming population estimate, more dolphins caught in nets and washing up dead in currently unprotected areas, and thousands of submissions calling for greater protection, the interim measures that the Government set in place fell short; not addressing trawling and not covering the full habitat area of the species, such as harbours.

Since then, New Zealand has come under scrutiny internationally for the continued decline of Maui's dolphins and the inadequate Government response.

In July, information was presented to the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) scientific committee on Maui's dolphin and vaquita (a critically endangered porpoise found in Mexico and facing similar threats), and the IWC expressed "extreme concern" and officially urged NZ and Mexico to take all possible measures to protect these species immediately. It was an international slap for New Zealand and Mexico, from one of the world's top scientific groups for whales and dolphins.

Maui's dolphins and vaquita were on the agenda again at last month’s IUCN meeting.  In a vote, the IUCN passed an almost unanimous motion urging New Zealand and Mexico to urgently protect these species, and specified that protection out to 100 meters depth throughout Maui's dolphin range as needed. There were 576 country and NGO votes in favour of the motion, and two votes against it. Each country member has two votes, and the two "no" votes belonged to New Zealand. We issued a joint press release with other NGOs about this disgraceful international shame brought on us by a Government so out of touch with public sentiment.

The Government is now reviewing the Threat Management Plan for Maui's dolphins. As it will determine the future of Maui's dolphins the international spotlight will be on New Zealand. You can make a submission by following the guidelines here. Note: It's a 219 page document, but the key sections to comment on are section 6 - on fishing related threats - and section 7 - on other threats.

You can also write to your MP or to the editor of your local newspaper raising the issue of Maui's dolphin and asking that action be taken to ensure its survival. To get updates on the campaign you can sign up here.

Most New Zealanders have pretty strong feelings about countries that go it alone and defy the IWC on whales... yet we are ignoring what they say on dolphins. If Maui's dolphins are wiped out - and they are precariously close - New Zealand would become only the second country in the history of the IWC to sit by and watch the extinction of a cetacean species, after China's Yangtze river dolphin was declared extinct a few years ago. Is that the reputation New Zealand wants on conservation?


Image: The main known threat to Maui’s and Hectors (pictured) dolphins is entanglement in fishing nets. Department of Conservation