The plight of New Zealand’s Māui and Hector’s dolphins, one of the rarest and smallest dolphin species in the world, has long been top of the agenda for conservationists. Tiny, playful and distinctively round-finned, these native dolphins have captured the hearts of locals and tourists alike, even earning the title ‘Kiwi of the sea’ –  their iconic status on par with the flightless bird New Zealanders adopted as their moniker. 

But the postcard favourites have also made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent decades, as scientists repeatedly warn of their freefall towards extinction. As their numbers decline year after year, pleas from environmentalists and marine scientists have become louder, but government action to protect them had never gone far enough. Now, with little more than 60 adult Māui left, and Hector’s populations concerning, commentators at home and abroad have been left asking why New Zealand seems unable to find a solution. 

Those that have been following the saga closely know there’s been a great deal of hand-wringing over what should be done to bolster dolphin recovery. Plenty of chat, but little decisive action, and a seeming reluctance from successive governments to restrict industries known to harm these dolphins.

Commercial fishing has resisted transition from methods known to endanger dolphins, even going so far as to blame the species for putting themselves in the way of their boats. More recently, they’ve claimed change is unnecessary, casting doubt as to whether the dolphins are even there at all. Prospective seabed miners have assuaged fears their activities would put the dolphins at further risk, claiming noise and sediment from mining would have a minimal affect on wildlife. And then you’ve got the oil and gas industry, who’ve always maintained their seismic blasting is innocuous. 

While those above the water have been caught up in the spin war, and political leaders have failed to heed expert advice, dolphin numbers have continued to plummet, with the extinction of Māui becoming more a question of when than if.  

But this year, Māui and Hector’s were tossed a life ring. In November, five marine mammal sanctuaries covering their habitat will get increased restrictions, specifically bans on both new seismic testing and seabed mining within their boundaries. Two sanctuaries will be extended significantly, with the west coast of the North Island flanked all the way from Maunganui Bluff to Wellington. The Banks Peninsula sanctuary will be extended from 12 nautical miles offshore out to 20.

These measures mean Māui and Hector’s have more space to thrive, and they also come just months after commitments to much needed fishing restrictions to set nets and trawling in their key habitat areas. 

What’s been proposed to save New Zealand’s most at-risk dolphin species, while not complete, is unusual for ocean policy under this Government, and others around the world. It takes a big picture view of the cumulative impacts being put on these creatures. From destructive overfishing to seabed mining and oil and gas exploration, the ocean system is under more pressure than ever, and only comprehensive responses will be enough to protect it.  

Too often under this Government, ocean protection decisions have been delayed or watered down, thanks to the very open secret that coalition member New Zealand First has been holding the handbrake. These additional protections come at the 11th hour, just before New Zealand’s general election, but are better late than never. The approach to ocean management is one that will need to be emulated when the new government forms later this year. 

To tackle the scale of the biodiversity crisis in the oceans at this late hour, hard calls need to be made and a big picture view taken, just as we’ve witnessed in this Māui case. It’s going to need a departure from old world thinking, and a more holistic approach to oceans management. It’s vital that the impact on the entire marine ecosystem is assessed when it comes to human activities like fishing and mining so that we can protect the oceans effectively for the future. 

The days of assuming the seas are endlessly abundant are well and truly behind us. For a future where dolphins still play in the waves, the oceans boil with fish and locals can still catch a feed, the incoming government will need to think long-term. The path to lead us to recovery is still open, but whether we choose to take it is up to us.