Saving Maui: Are We Too Late?

The Maui’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) is the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world, and they reside only in waters off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. A subspecies of the South Island Hector’s Dolphin, the Maui Dolphin population is estimated to be between 55 and 65 individuals and is facing a substantial threat of extinction within the next decade.

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I’m going to say it straight off the bat, that up until last year I had no idea just how threatened the population of Maui Dolphins actually were. It was the 26th of November 2018. It was the same day that news broke of 145 Pilot Whales stranding on Stewart Island. I was helping my 11 year old nephew with his homework when it came through on my news feed, and after reading the article out loud to him, he asked about other whale strandings in New Zealand. Eventually, after trying to explain that I have no idea why whales strand themselves, we landed on the Department of Conservation website where he made me read out to him all the information on all the native marine mammals. When we read about the Maui Dolphins he first asked “how could we have let the population get so low?” He then said “if something happens like the whales and they all strand, that’s the whole lot of them gone”.

As a Canterbury local, we quite often spot Maui’s cousins — the Hector’s Dolphin in Lyttelton Harbour and around Banks Peninsula. It’s very well known around here about the conservation efforts and protection that these rare mammals have in these waters. As someone who enjoys New Zealand’s outdoors and being incredibly conscious about conservation of other threatened species in this country, I felt absolutely terrible for being so ignorant about the threats these marine mammals face.

Hector’s Dolphin and the Maui Dolphin are the two smallest species of dolphins in the world and they currently face significant threat from human activities within New Zealand’s coastal waters. As New Zealand’s only endemic cetaceans, The Department of Conservation (DOC) New Zealand Threat Classification System ranks the Hector’s Dolphin as nationally endangered and the smaller Maui Dolphin as nationally critical.

Under the criteria, Hector’s Dolphin — with a population estimated to be around 15,000, is listed as “endangered” because the best available evidence indicates that this subspecies is “considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild”. The threat to the Maui Dolphin is much more harrowing. With an estimated population of just 63 — the “critically endangered” classification of these dolphins indicates that this subspecies is “considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild”.

Between March and April of this year, formal public consultation will take place on the Hector’s and Maui Dolphins Threat Management Plan. First reviewed and implemented in 2007:

The Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan (TMP) was developed jointly by DOC and the then Ministry of Fisheries, now the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). The purpose of the TMP is to recognise human caused threats to Hector’s and Māui dolphins, and to come up with strategies to minimise or remove these threats. The TMP also sets out to identify research and monitoring to help Hector’s and Māui dolphins. — DOC

The Maui portion of the Threat Management Plan was again reviewed in March of 2012 following the death of a Maui Dolphin off the coast of Taranaki in January that year. Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith implemented further fishing restrictions and extended the sanctuary area of the dolphins in 2013 as a result of the review. But has the New Zealand Government done enough to protect this species from the continued threats they face?

Experts in a 2012 panel conducting a risk assessment of Maui Dolphins agreed that the biggest threat the dolphins currently face is through human induced activity — particularly fishing. The panel estimated that fishing-related threats were responsible for 95.5% of total human-associated mortalities. Other threats include pollution, boat strike, marine mining, drilling, and construction, including seismic surveys. For the New Zealand Government it has been a balancing act of protecting these dolphins and also protecting the industries that operate in and around the Marine Mammal Sanctuary. While fishing restrictions and the boundaries of the protected marine areas on the West Coast of the North Island have increased gradually since 2003, a report from the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee in 2016 concluded:

…as it has repeatedly in the past, that existing management measures in relation to bycatch mitigation fall short of what has been recommended previously and expressed continued grave concern over the status of this small, severely depleted subspecies. The human-caused death of even one individual would increase the extinction risk… The subcommittee again urged the New Zealand Government to commit to specific population increase targets and timelines for Maui dolphin conservation, and again respectfully requested that reports be provided annually on progress towards the conservation and recovery goals.

The current protections for the Maui Dolphins were last revised in December 2013. The total area of the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary is approximately 1,200,086 ha covering 2,164 km of coastline. It extends up to 12 nautical miles out to sea from Maunganui Bluff in Northland to Oakura Beach, Taranaki, in the south. There are a range of restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing as well as non fishing measures that prohibit sea bed mining and seismic survey operations within two nautical miles of the coastline. Scientists and conservation groups believe this is not enough and that a genuine sanctuary is needed throughout the whole Maui Dolphin range along the coastline and out to 100m depth.

Despite calls from the international community to increase protections, the New Zealand Government has consistently cited a lack of scientific evidence to support the recommended protection measures. In 2012 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, out of 576 members voting for further protection of the Maui Dolphins, New Zealand was the only country to oppose the motion stating “it was not consistent with New Zealand Government policy on mitigating fishing related risks to them”. In 2017 the National Government opened up 35% of the protected Maui Dolphin habitat to oil drilling and mineral and gas exploration, and a permit was granted in May 2018 by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals to a mining company to drill, dredge and explore a 220 square kilometre section that falls within the sanctuary.

The New Zealand Government is adamant they have been committed to doing everything practically possible to ensure the survival of this species, but with a sustainable loss of one individual every 6.4 years, reports show that there have been seven recorded deaths since 2008. Three in 2018 alone.

And so the question is — are we too late to save them? There has been no conclusive evidence that the current protections have provided enough to increase the population, and in fact are still seen by many in the scientific and conservation community as inadequate. Effective conservation when the population was still in the hundreds may have given us a chance. As my nephew said to me — how did we let it get so low? With only 63 individuals left, we cannot stop the predators in the ocean that naturally prey on the Maui. We cannot stop disease like Brucella or Toxoplasmosis from affecting them. We can’t prevent a mass stranding of these mammals. We can’t determine how the small pool of genetic diversity amongst the remaining 60 individuals will affect their birth and development rates. The threat from nature is now amplified and it is clear that it has been human activity that has driven the decline of the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin.

This is from the WWF on how you can help Maui Dolphins today:

1. Write to the Prime Minister and to the Minister for Primary Industries urging them to support affected fishers to move to dolphin-friendly methods of fishing and extend the ban on set netting and traditional trawling to cover all the Māui dolphin range, from Maunganui Bluff to the Whanganui River mouth. You can write to the Minister or Prime Minister for free.

2. Write to the Minister of Conservation asking them to (1) implement a gillnet ban in waters up to 100m deep around the New Zealand coast, and (2) extend the existing trawl ban in Taranaki, from Maunganui Bluff to the Whanganui River mouth, out to 100m water depth, or 7 nautical miles at a minimum, including the Manukau Harbour. You could also urge her to increase observer coverage on trawl vessels. You can write to them for free.

3. Email or write to your local MP and ask him/her to support increased protection of Māui dolphins.

4. Report any sightings of Māui dolphins on North Island’s west coast beaches this summer.

I’ll be continuing this series on the Maui Dolphin over summer until the results of the Threat Management Plan later in the year. It is imperative that we take action to protect these incredible marine mammals. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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