By Otago Marine Science 26/09/2021

The chances of Maui dolphin avoiding extinction have just got even worse. It was bad enough already, but the latest population estimate shows that there are now fewer than 50 Maui dolphins left in the World. Meanwhile, the Ministry for Primary Industries has just increased the quotas for gillnet and trawl fisheries in Maui dolphin habitat and New Zealand is continuing to ignore the recommendation by the IUCN to fully protect both Hector’s and Maui dolphins.

The IUCN has urged New Zealand to “urgently extend dolphin protection” by “banning gill net and trawl net use from the shoreline to the 100 meter depth contour in all areas where Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins are found, including harbours”. At this year’s IUCN Congress, which finished a couple of weeks ago, we heard from the Director General that the vast majority of IUCN Resolutions have been acted on. Only 8% of the Resolutions are being ignored by the relevant countries. New Zealand is in very bad company, being part of this group of 8%.

The first map shows current dolphin protection, with dolphin distribution in red, protection from gillnets in light green and protection from both gillnets and trawling in dark green. The second map shows what the IUCN has recommended: Total protection for Hector’s and Maui dolphins, throughout their habitat, or ‘turning the red sea green’.

What we’ve got:

What the dolphins need:

Maui dolphin continues to teeter on the edge of extinction, as it has done for well over a decade. Listed as Critically Endangered, this is as bad as it gets. The IUCN category Critically Endangered literally means that Maui dolphins are at an extremely high risk of extinction. In the last decade, the population estimates have gone from 55 to 63 and now 54 individuals. Correcting this estimate for dolphin mortality between the last two surveys, in 2020 and 2021, shows that the current population is actually below 50 individuals.

Every day that they continue to languish at this extremely low population size is another day that Maui dolphin could go extinct. The Chinese river dolphin reached about 50 individuals and then went extinct. The Mexican vaquita porpoise, likewise declined to about 50 individuals and now appears to be in the process of going extinct. The IUCN listed Maui dolphin as Critically Endangered about 20 years ago, and has recommended urgent and full protection from dolphin deaths in fishing nets. Several South Island populations are also very small, and some of these have already disappeared (e.g. the South Otago population).


Dolphins are continuing to die needlessly


Instead of acting on the advice from the IUCN, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission and other national and international experts, the New Zealand government continues to say that there is no need to stop using gillnets and trawling in the habitat of these endemic, endangered dolphins. Progress reports to the IUCN, IWC and the recent, extremely misleading video for the World Economic Forum imply that ‘more research’ is needed to protect Maui dolphins:

In fact, there is already more than enough evidence to show that Maui and Hector’s dolphins, like every other dolphin species in the World, are vulnerable to bycatch in gillnet and trawl fisheries. The big difference is that these dolphins are only found in New Zealand, and fisheries bycatch has driven them down to a small fraction of their original population size. The good news is that all we need to do to save them is to use dolphin-safe fishing methods in dolphin habitat, such as hook and line fishing methods and fish traps. Relentless lobbying by the fishing industry seems to be the major obstacle in the way of decision-makers doing what’s necessary to save these dolphins. This lack of action is increasing the risk of dolphin extinctions and the risk of serious damage to New Zealand’s international reputation. Already, the US Court of International Trade is considering banning fish exports from New Zealand to the USA. Similar action from other countries, including the EU, is likely to follow.

The latest decision on dolphin protection, in 2020, was based on a habitat model that has been strongly criticised by an International Expert Panel, who were invited by MPI and DOC to spend a week in Wellington to advise them. Instead of responding to the 37 recommendations made by the Expert Panel, MPI decided to present its model to a second group of international experts, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. The IWC outlined a process for an independent peer-review of the MPI model, listing essentially the same issues already pointed out by Taylor et al. (2018) with some additional problems to be examined by expert reviewers. MPI has failed to engage with the IWC’s much-needed examination of the habitat model.

This kind of approach has been called “discourses of delay” by academics working on sustainability research –  for example in relation to the actions of the oil industry in delaying effective solutions to the climate crisis. It seems that outright denial of environmental impacts is no longer fashionable, and many industries are instead opting for a “delay” strategy:  Essentially, running a public relations campaign to convince the public and decision-makers to continue to accept industries that have devastating impacts on human health and the environment. In the case of Hector’s and Maui dolphins, MPI appear to be aiming at a level of protection that will result in populations ‘flat-lining’ at their current, depleted levels (about 30% of original population size for Hector’s dolphin and well below 10% for Maui dolphin). Current dolphin protection is certainly nowhere near sufficient for these endangered, endemic dolphins to recover back to their original, pre-fishing levels.

This update was brought to you by:

Professor Emeritus Liz Slooten, from Otago University