Just like Canada’s majestic polar bear, the soaring hawk, or the graceful caribou, New Zealand has its own national treasure – the Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins. Nowhere else in the world will you find these beautiful marine mammals. The dolphins are among the world’s smallest cetaceans, easily recognised by their distinctive dorsal fin shaped like a Mickey Mouse ear (no, I did not come up with that analogy!). They are extremely playful and acrobatic. Hector’s dolphins are found around New Zealand’s South Island. One of its subspecies, the Maui’s dolphins, are only found in shallow coastal waters along the North Island’s western shores.
Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with WWF’s program manager for Maui’s dolphins. She's based in Auckland but is in Wellington this week for a marine sciences conference and took time out of her day to meet with me for lunch. The facts around Maui dolphins are staggering. Over the past thirty years, the population of these beautiful animals has declined by over 80%! Today their entire population is estimated at just 111 individuals putting them on the very edge of extinction. As a result, Maui’s dolphins are classified as the rarest marine cetacean in the world.
And Hector’s dolphins aren’t doing much better. Scientists estimate that more than 26,000 Hector’s dolphins lived around New Zealand’s shores in the 1970s. Today, it is thought that just 7,270 remain – less than one-third of the 1970s’ population.
So what’s causing this rapid decline? According to my fellow WWF’ers and marine specialists, the biggest threats are set net and bottom trawl fishing. These are fishing practices commonly used here in New Zealand that result in massive fish wastage, bycatch of unwanted fish species, as well as lost or abandoned nets which continue to fish, and, on occasion, catch seabirds or other marine mammals (including dolphins). A 2008 report by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) estimates that 110 to 150 Hector's and Maui's dolphins die in commercial set nets every year. Given that their populations are already sitting on extinction’s doorstep, these statistics are incredibly frightening.
The sad news is that these problems can usually be avoided. The catch and bycatch of set nets are determined mainly by the design and construction (particularly the mesh size) of the net, how it is set, and where it is set.
So what needs to happen? People need to start talking and working together. There’s a great group over here called Southern Seabird Solutions. They are “an innovative alliance that includes representatives from the fishing industry, government, Maori organisations and environmental groups that supports and encourages fishers in southern ocean fleets to adopt responsible fishing practices”. They have successfully reached sustainable fishing and management solutions in specific areas throughout the New Zealand marine ecoregion. With WWF’s help as well as active participation from the Department of Conservation and local fishing communities, there is still hope for these beautiful animals.
It’s because of us that they are on the brink of extinction. Now it’s time for us to fix our mistake. Hopefully, it’s not too late.