The back-and-forth on Maui’s dolphins between Government departments, released under the Official Information Act and reported by the Dominion Post over the weekend, is gravely concerning for two reasons.

Firstly, the Ministry of Primary Industries is overstepping its mandate and determining New Zealand’s vote on (or to be precise, against) protection for New Zealand’s unique and critically endangered Maui’s dolphin. The latest population estimate showed only 55 breeding adult Maui’s remain, making this the rarest dolphin in the world. This is undoubtedly an issue that should be led by the Department of Conservation, which in the past decade has carefully rebuilt the kakapo population from a similarly low level.

Secondly, the Ministry of Primary Industry’s insistence on a “no” vote by New Zealand – making us the only country to vote against the IUCN protection motion – makes a mockery of the public consultation process the Government has undertaken. An abstention, advised by the Department of Conservation, would have indicated a Government genuine in its consideration and consultation on the options for protecting Maui’s dolphins. However, to vote “no” to a motion that was based on some of the best-available science indicates a government that has already decided on a course of inaction. So did 70,000 public submissions – the overwhelming majority calling for stronger protection for Maui’s – fall on deaf ears?

It’s hard to know, when the Minister of Conservation still hasn’t made a decision, six months after the public consultation. With a species on the brink of extinction, we just can’t afford such delays. It seems the Government has opted – whether consciously or by neglecting to make a decision – to sit by and watch the extinction of Maui’s dolphins, which the International Whaling Commission advised may happen in the next 20 years if protection is not increased. I wonder if the Ministry of Primary Industries ( which defended our response, or rather lack of it, to the IWC scientific Committee last month) will be quite so keen to take the lead when it comes to announcing at the IWC that New Zealand has become the first country to drive a marine dolphin to extinction.

We know Maui’s dolphins are on the brink of extinction. We know the main threat to their survival is bycatch in fishing nets, and we know their habitat range extends well beyond the limited areas where protection is currently in force – making it an urgent priority to extend that protection. If the government doesn’t do this, New Zealand is going to be answerable for the extinction of the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin. Let’s not go there.

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