The world’s smallest and rarest dolphin is on the path to extinction. Only decisive action can still save the unique and beautiful cetacean.
Barbara Maas, Head of International Species Conservation at NABU International talks to Global Ideas about why the population of the Maui's dolphin is in such desperate decline, and what can be done to save them.
Can you start by telling us something about the Maui’s dolphins?
Most people don’t even know they exist, much less that they are hanging on by the tips of their flippers to survive. Hector’s dolphins and Maui’s dolphins are two subspecies that only live in New Zealand - Hector’s dolphins on the South Island and Maui’s dolphins on the North Island. The Maui’s dolphins are between 1.2 and 1.4 meters long and are characterized by a round dorsal fin, which is quite rare, most dolphins have pointy fins.
What makes them so unique?
They are New Zealand’s only endemic whale species and they are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. We estimate that there are only 45 Maui’s dolphins left. They are like the Kiwi, or unique in the way the panda is to China.
Why are they so rare?
In the 1970s there were about 29,000 Hector’s dolphins. Today, there are about 7,200, and there used to be roughly 2,000 Maui’s dolphins and now we’re down to 45. So something has been happening since the 1970s. The main threat is commercial and recreational fishing.
In the 1970s nylon gillnets appeared. Globally, hundreds of thousands of cetaceans die each year in gillnets and trawl nets, and in the case of Maui’s- and Hector’s dolphins, it threatens their very survival. In 2012 the government of New Zealand convened a panel of experts of national and international scientists - including scientists from the fishing industry - to carry out a risk assessment for Maui’s dolphins. They said 95.5 percent killed by human threats are killed by fishing nets.
What can be done to save the Maui’s dolphins?
These dolphins only live within New Zealand’s territorial waters, so if they are going to be saved, New Zealand is going to save them. You don’t need to stop fishing in their habitat but you need to switch to sustainable fishing methods that do not endanger dolphins. You can do line fishing, use fish traps, there are other methods that do not endanger the dolphins. But the government is not taking action.
For me as a scientist, it is shocking to see the New Zealand government’s antics as they try to make it look as if they’re doing something and taking this issue seriously.
The fishing industry says we should catch all the dolphins and save them through artificial insemination. But breeding is not the problem. They are breeding but dying in the nets. Studies have shown the genetic diversity of the dolphins to be higher than you would expect for such a small population, so provided they are left alone, they can still bounce back. But it has to happen now, we can’t wait until there are only 20 or 10 or 5 left. Then it will be too late.
Is there a way the public can help protect them?
Maui’s dolphins will only be saved if people become involved and say it is not okay. So next time you go to your supermarket or your food shop to buy fish, ask them if they have any fish from New Zealand and tell them you don’t want it because of the Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins. Make it an issue. It’s important that the retailers become aware of this.
A Hector's dolphin swims in the wake of a fishing boat. Net fishing is the single biggest threat to the survival of the species
It will make them more likely to take it off their shelves and to go back to the importers and say: 'People are telling us that they don’t want your fish because of this dreaded Maui’s dolphin-issue.' We’re trying to generate enough of an outcry to force New Zealand to take action.
If Maui’s dolphins die out, they will be the first marine cetaceans to go extinct because of human action. Even the whalers haven’t managed that.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity