Wonderful dolphins, still lacking protection

By Lynley Hargreaves 14/05/2015


Raewyn Peart
Raewyn Peart

When asked for legal assistance for dolphins, New Zealand’s Environmental Defence Society policy director Raewyn Peart was unable to help. But although the group couldn’t join a court case in which the fishing industry was challenging new regulations, Raewyn was so taken by the stories and science that she wrote Dolphins of Aotearoa, now a finalist in the 2015 Royal Society Science Book Prize. Here, Raewyn Peart and University of Otago’s Professor Liz Slooten tell us about our fascination with, and the future of, New Zealand’s dolphins.

Have we always been fascinated by dolphins?

Raewyn: The high sociability of dolphins, their intelligence, their altruism and their interest in interacting with humans, has made them intriguing to us for generations. Māori developed a very close spiritual relationship with dolphins, some believing that they embodied spirits of their dead. There are many legends of dolphins guiding seafarers and swimmers to safety.

The first recorded European interaction with dolphins was in the late 19th Century when Pelorus Jack started to follow steamers crossing Cook Strait to Picton. The idea of a wild creature undertaking such behaviour was so novel that many people made the trip across the Strait just to see the dolphin. After someone tried to shoot the dolphin, legislation was passed to protect it. This was quite extraordinary. For no other kinds of animals have we passed legislation designed to protect specific individuals.

In the Hokianga harbour, Opo was an enormous attraction in 1955, drawing thousands of people from other parts of New Zealand and overseas. When she died the national outpouring of grief was incredible. More recently, there have been many more dolphin interactions, with the idea of swimming with dolphins popularised by Wade Doak during the 1970s.

People have developed very close emotional bonds with individual dolphins, in some cases actually falling in love with them. For many there is a very deep spiritual connection which is hard to describe in words. Often people come up to me, and describe their recent dolphin encounter, and their eyes light up with the memory of something really special.

Liz: It’s unusual these days to meet a wild, intelligent animal that seeks our company. This would have been more common in the past. But with wolves, bears and other mammals gone from most places where humans live these sorts of experiences are becoming less common. Of course, we still have contact with dogs, horses and other animals. But an encounter with an intelligent animal that seems to be just as curious about us as we are about them is a real treat.

Dolphins often ride on the bow wave of boats, approach swimmers in the water and are generally curious about anything going on in their environment. By contrast, most other animals at best tolerate humans encroaching on their environment. For example, fur seals tend to run away. Sperm whales will sit quietly and let you approach them if you do so carefully. Some birds, for example fantails, will approach humans enthusiastically, but usually with food in mind.

How many different kinds of dolphins are there around New Zealand?

Raewyn: Many different kinds of dolphins pass through New Zealand’s waters including the long-finned pilot whale (called a whale but actually a dolphin) which frequently strand here. But there are only five species which are resident all year round along our inshore coasts. These are the small Hector’s Dolphin, the common dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, the dusky dolphin and orca (by far the largest).

It was only in 2002 that the Hector’s dolphins living along the west coast of the North Island were identified as a distinct sub-species and named the Maui’s dolphin. Prior to this, little attention was given to this small population. Sadly, by the time the sub-species was discovered it was almost extinct with only around 55 non-juvenile animals surviving.

Are the regulations to protect dolphins adequate now?

Liz: Maui’s dolphins are literally teetering on the brink of extinction and Hector’s dolphins have only a slightly better chance of pulling through. It’s important to remember that several Hector’s dolphins populations are very small and in the same situation as Maui’s dolphins. We just have a little more time with Hector’s dolphins, that’s the only difference.

Raewyn: Despite a strong affinity with dolphins we have been very slow to protect them. The first protection for Hector’s dolphins was put in place around the Banks Peninsula  in 1988, but protection is still only very partial. In particular, populations of Hector’s dolphin along the South Island’s west coast are poorly protected. There has been more extensive protection for the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, but this still does not extend over all of the dolphins’ range. The current government position seems to be that it is all right to kill dolphins incidental to fishing activity so long as the population is not heading towards certain extinction.

Numerous common dolphins are being caught in the Jack Mackerel fishery off the south west coast of the North Island and there is still no regulation to address this. This is ostensibly because the population itself is not endangered although we don’t actually know how many common dolphins there are around our coasts. Anecdotally there used to be far greater numbers with people reporting seeing enormous herds.

Protections for dolphins have frequently been challenged by the fishing industry in the High Court. It was the latest challenge in 2008 that first brought the dolphin issue to my notice, although I had been involved in environmental work for some years. That is why I wrote the book. I thought that most people would feel uncomfortable about the fact that we were killing lots of dolphins and would support policy change to better protect them.

Is there more to be learned about dolphins?

Liz: There are still only a handful of long-term dolphin studies, such as our study of Hector’s dolphins, which started in 1984. There is still a lot to be learned about dolphins.

Raewyn: Our understanding of dolphin intelligence, social interactions, communication and use of the marine area is still very rudimentary. But the issue is how to obtain further scientific information without interfering with the welfare of the dolphins in the process. Much information on the intelligence of dolphins comes from captive animals, and there is strong evidence that captivity is harmful to the animals. Observation in the wild can only take you so far, as can biopsy of dead dolphins. Tagging still remains highly controversial because of the level of intervention required; capture, drilling fins and attaching gear. Hopefully new technology might help with underwater cameras, sound recorders etc.

What are the biggest challenges lying ahead for New Zealand dolphins?

Raewyn: The biggest challenge for the dolphins is being able to successfully live their lives in waters that are increasingly being impacted upon by humans. These impacts include human-dolphin encounters, where people need to treat dolphins with respect; fish stock targets, which ought to consider dolphin needs for food; and structures such as marine farms, which need to be kept away from areas heavily utilised by dolphins. The biggest threat to dolphins though is fishing activity. I still find it hard to understand how, as a nation, we can be opposed to whaling and to keeping dolphins captive but our law still allows dolphins to be inadvertently caught in nets (outside specifically protected areas). So our biggest challenge is connecting the public affinity with dolphins with political action to better protect them. I think it would be incredibly sad if our children and their children were not able to continue to enjoy these wonderful creatures around our coast.

Liz: We could solve problems for dolphins overnight if we put our minds to it. In fact, in the long term, this would be better for everyone: the dolphins, other marine life and humans. Gillnets and trawl nets make sense only if you count the short term profits and ignore the fact that these bulk fishing methods are doing immeasurable damage to fish stocks as well as other marine life such as dolphins and seabirds.

Dolphins of Aotearoa is a finalist for the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.