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Saving Hector’s and Māui dolphins

6 min read
Saving Hector and Maui dolphins

An estimated 63 Maui are left in New Zealand. Photo: DOC | Erin Green

August was a pivotal month for New Zealand—for the government, for the conservationists, and for those whose business and livelihood may come to an abrupt end. News, social media posts, and even conversations at workplace were around the Hector’s and Māui dolphin Threat Management Plan.

Among the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins, Māui and Hector’s are native to New Zealand waters, and so it seems only natural that we should protect them in a time when their numbers have plummeted from an estimated 2000 Māui and 20,000 Hector’s up until the 1970s to around a mere 63 Māui and 10,000 Hector’s.

The numbers in itself should be enough to cause discomfort to any Kiwi, let alone the New Zealand government. Dive deeper and you will find the reasons behind the deaths: some beyond our control—disease; predation from sharks and orcas—and some that humans can control—pollution; effects of marine mining, drilling, and construction; entangled in commercial gill and trawl nets; being hit by boats and their propellers.

It would be unfair to say the New Zealand government has turned a blind eye. In 2007, the Ministry of Fisheries (now Fisheries New Zealand) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) released a Threat Management Plan (TMP) for these dolphins—a step taken in response to public and government concern over human-caused deaths among these species, including fishing, oil and gas exploration, boat strike, pollution and plastic bags, climate change, mining, tourism, and noise.

Restrictions on set net and trawling were placed around the North and South Islands and DOC established five marine sanctuaries in Hector’s and Māui dolphin habitats.

Earlier this year, Ministerial approval was sought on the scope of the review, which was followed by a formal public consultation that closed on 19 August, but this just seems the start.

Big threats demand big actions

Outrageous Fortunes actor Robyn Malcolm along with others delivered a petition to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage on 19 August in Wellington.
Photo: World Animal Protection | Brady Dyer

While the government says they are doing their part to save the dolphins, conservationists say that as the situation gets more and more dire, the efforts taken by the government are not enough. 

The Environment and Conservation Organisations expressed their disappointment over the options laid out by DOC and MPI, saying, “Only one of the Māui dolphin options gets close to comprehensive protection (Option 4) but fails to include the full range of measures that have been endorsed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and by the International Whaling Commission. Set nets and trawling should be prohibited out to 100-metre contour so that the dolphins do not go extinct and have a chance to recover.”

Forest & Bird says only dolphin-friendly methods should be allowed in their habitats.

“We need to tackle every one of those threats and half measures won’t save Māui dolphins,” said Forest & Bird conservation advocate Anton van Helden. “Set net and trawl fishing and dangers related to oil, gas and minerals exploration and mining are known threats that we can eliminate.

“Zero bycatch is the only acceptable goal for both Māui and Hector’s dolphins. Forest & Bird realises this will cause disruption to some fishers and believes the government should provide financial and practical help for those affected.”

A 55,000-strong petition was also delivered by a Greenpeace- and World Animal Protection New Zealand-led rally, from the DOC to Parliament House. Supporters gathered to hear from speakers such as actor Robyn Malcolm, dolphin expert Professor Liz Slooten from Otago University, and Minister for Conservation, Eugenie Sage.

On the other hand, WWF—New Zealand believes the current TMP options “do not go far enough”, and so, along with Moana New Zealand and Sanford Ltd, have proposed a new joint plan—an Option 5 (the TMP proposed includes four options).

“WWF’s mission is to enable people to live in harmony with nature. Option 5 is about people as much as it is about dolphins. Lives are at stake,” said Livia Esterhazy, WWF-New Zealand’s CEO.

However, both Greenpeace and Forest & Bird put out statements saying the WWF proposal was dangerous and risky.

Industry speaks out

Closing off the proposed areas to trawlers will severely impact his business
Photo: Gavin Mackenzie

But yes, lives are at stake, for both the dolphins and the lives and livelihoods of people.

Seafood New Zealand says the government’s plan will put hundreds of small fishermen out of business and hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost from regional economies—and may not save one dolphin.

“Not one Māui dolphin has been confirmed caught by a commercial fisherman since 2002 and, while recognising Māui are critically endangered, the TMP itself claims toxoplasmosis, a cat-borne disease that enters waterways, is the main threat to Māui. It also concedes that set netting may capture an estimated one dolphin every 10 years and in the trawl fishery one in 50 years,” the organisation said in its press release.

Chief executive Tim Pankhurst added that the current restrictions were already significant and that the industry “devotes time, effort, and money into reducing risks to marine mammals and will continue to do so”.

Read more: Man convicted for fishing in area closed to protect Hector’s dolphins

Gavin Mackenzie from Raglan Trawling agrees, saying that closing off the proposed areas to trawlers will severely impact his business.

“The 2nm exclusion zone along the West Coast to protect Māui dolphins by default acts as a marine reserve because trawlers have no access. Interestingly, in our area, there is no advantage in trawling inside that line, as the target species for our operation is gurnard, and they are more numerous from 2 to 4nm.

“Which brings us to the Dolphin Threat Protection Measures currently under review. As stated, the gurnard in our area are numerous between two and four miles off the coast. This is Option two in the plan. Closing that area to trawling, which incidentally has never caught a Māui, will make our present operation uneconomic.

“The green lobby has promoted the idea that Commercial Fishers can simply “transition” to other methods. This is without considering that trawling actually catches a diversity of species that are in demand and that some do not readily take a hook. This opens a bigger issue, in that quota owners will be disadvantaged, as will the general populace used to that diversity being available.”

“My own preference is to utilise the science available to avoid or deter dolphin and to have more understanding of their whereabouts and patterns of movement; to work around these factors in order to share the marine environment in an effective way without the closure of huge areas where there is no potential of any interaction. This is practical and workable while avoiding the emotive agenda currently in evidence.”

Gavin adds that on a few occasions, he has been reported by “well-meaning but ill-informed persons” and been accused of fishing close to the shore but MPI investigations have found no wrongdoing.

“This shows that people are keenly aware of the issues, particularly around Māui dolphins and are well-intentioned but misguided, having no real understanding of the reality of Commercial Fishing.” 

Ultimately, the fate of the dolphins is in our hands. We need to act and we need to act fast. And the government has a big task ahead of themselves—to ensure these beautiful creatures do not go extinct and also that their proposed plans do not significantly impact the livelihood of the industry.

The submissions for the Māui dolphin Threat Management Plan may have come to a close but the conversations around it are far from being over.

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