New Zealand is facing pressure to save the world’s rarest dolphin at an international scientific meeting underway this week in what conservationists say is a test of the nation’s “clean, green” credentials.
The Maui’s dolphin, found only in shallow waters off the North Island’s west coast, is listed as critically endangered, with just 55 adults remaining and experts fearing it will disappear by 2030 unless urgent action is taken.
The gray and white Maui’s, named after a Polynesian demi-god, is one of the world’s smallest dolphins, with a maximum length of 1.7m.
Associate professor of zoology at Otago University Liz Slooten said an expert panel appointed by the government estimated last year that five of the dolphins were killed annually as fishing industry “bycatch.”
“They are literally teetering in the brink of extinction,” Slooten said. “They won’t last if we don’t do something right now.”
The New Zealand government believes that entanglement in gill nets — vertical mesh nets left in the water for long periods — is the main cause of death. Conservation groups say proposals for seabed mining, including seismic surveying, also pose a major threat.
Some restrictions on gill netting and trawling in the dolphins’ habitat were introduced last year, but the government stopped short of meeting an International Whaling Commission (IWC) call for an immediate ban to save the species.
Instead, it called for submissions to a threat management plan, saying it would assess both the risks facing the dolphins and “the potential impact of this extended ban on the local fishing community.”
While submissions for the management plan closed in November last year, no further action has been taken and critics accuse the government of stalling.
“We’re worried the government is delaying to the point of no return for Maui’s dolphins. Just waiting for them to drop off the agenda because they’re extinct is not solving the problem, that’s the loss of a species from the planet,” Greenpeace campaigner Karli Thomas said.
The issue was due to resurface at a meeting of the IWC scientific committee, which opened on South Korea’s southern island of Jeju on Monday last week and runs until Saturday.