If you don’t like the idea of New Zealand becoming the first country to oversee the extinction of a marine dolphin, you should be very worried. I sure am. Six months ago, the NZ Government sought public feedback on its emergency response to the extinction looming over Maui’s dolphin – of which there are estimated to be only 55 adults left.
You wouldn’t want this lot in charge of civil defence, because six months later, we haven’t heard a thing about what they’ve decided to do. Hardly the speed you’d expect in reaction to an emergency, particularly one that could wipe these native dolphins off the face of the planet, forever.
When the public consultation ended last November, Wellington artist Sheyne Tuffery produced 55 beautiful artworks representing the 55 remaining adult Maui’s dolphins. Greenpeace presented those artworks to 55 MPs who held the future of the species in their hands. We were upfront that the symbolism of this gift depended on their response to the plight of Maui’s dolphin. If politicians were genuine in their commitment to saving Maui’s dolphins (banning net fishing throughout their habitat out to 100 meters depth, as advised by international and local experts), the print would forever be a reminder of their role in bringing Maui’s back from the brink. New Zealand has had some impressive achievements in wildlife rescue including the Chatham Island black robin and kakapo, so our gift urged MPs to be part of another conservation success.
On the other hand, the artworks would be a reminder of their inaction if they were half-hearted or opposed to the protection measures needed to save Maui’s dolphins. If the Government’s protection plan falls short of what the International Whaling Commission and World Conservation Congress have unequivocally recommended, those responsible will have to carry the knowledge that they are making a modern day addition to New Zealand’s less impressive record: Moa, huia, Haast eagle, the list goes on of species we’ve driven to extinction.
What has got me worried is not just the dangerous delay in the Government’s response, but also the fact that we got a “return to sender” in the post this week. It was Conservation Minister Nick Smith’s dolphin print. It’s the not the first to be returned - the annual list of gifts received by MPs was published a week or so back, and “Sheyne Tuffery Print – Greenpeace” was a theme throughout. Several MPs declared that they had return theirs, donated them or re-gifted them. But getting the print returned by the Minister of Conservation feels like a bad omen. Surely it would be the perfect print to adorn the office of a Minister who took the first bold steps to rescue Maui’s dolphin from extinction – if indeed that is what the Government intends to do.
One thing is clear, which is that the Government knows there is widespread public concern about the survival of Maui’s dolphins. The public consultation last year received more than 70,000 submissions, which is not surprising when the Government’s proposal was for protection measures much weaker than experts advised were needed to save Maui’s. While the delay continues, speculation is rife over what the Government is playing at. A rumour is spreading that the delay stems from pressure to allow seismic surveying in Maui’s dolphin habitat to wrap up before an announcement. Although the biggest threat to Maui’s is entanglement in fishing nets, seismic surveys may well be harming the dolphins, disrupting their behaviour or impacting on their prey. Imagine a noise like a gunshot, firing in your street every few seconds, 24/7 throughout a survey period lasting about four months - and tell me that would have no effect on the residents. That is what has been happening the last few months during oil and gas exploration of a 4000 square kilometre area off the west coast of the North Island in between north Taranaki and Raglan.
Another suggestion, possibly even more concerning, is that the Government has already made its decision and it’s bad news for the dolphins - get rid of the problem simply by watching over the last few dolphins as they die off. Like the Anadarko Amendment, the Government’s recent legislation criminalising protest at sea and protecting the ‘rights’ of foreign oil companies, such a decision would be unlikely to go down well with the people of New Zealand. If that’s the case, we can probably expect the Government to announce an unpopular extinction plan over the next long weekend. The Anadarko Amendment was made public on Easter Sunday. Perhaps the managed extinction of Maui’s dolphins will be announced on Queen’s Birthday weekend?
We’re trying to keep some faith in the Government living up to our Kiwi ideal and fighting to protect New Zealand wildlife, we really are. But with slashed conservation budgets, our EEZ handed over to foreign oil companies and six months naval gazing on ‘emergency’ measures to save a unique native dolphin from imminent extinction, they’re not giving us much to go on here.