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Humpback whale underwater

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The smallest dolphin in the world faces extinction unless we provide it the biggest protection

By Meghan Rickard

While largely symbolic rather than statutory, “the first 100 days” are closely watched by the media and their success measured by public approval ratings.  It is with the idea in mind of measuring the actions of the administration’s first 100 days that we are bringing you our 100 day blog series. The series highlights 6 populations of whales and dolphins for which fewer than 100 remain while arming you, our supporters, with clear information on these critical issues and how you can get involved.  Some are at risk of extinction within our lifetimes; some are at risk of extinction within the next 2 to 5 years.  All of them need your help to survive.  

This past November, WDC provided support for the proposal to list the Maui Dolphin and its close relative, the South Island Hector dolphin, as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act but the Administration has yet to take action.  Maui and/or Hector's Dolphins Sightings Date map - North IrelandWDC believes that providing the necessary protections to these vulnerable dolphins in the first 100 days of office would be a measure of success for this Administration.  

Maui dolphins are found only off the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. They are the smallest of the world’s 38 known dolphin species, around four feet long, and live in small groups of 2 to 8 individuals. They look identical to their close relatives of the South Island, the Hector’s dolphin, and until 2002, Maui dolphins were known as the North Island Hector’s dolphin. It wasn’t until a scientist discovered the genetic and skeletal uniqueness of the Maui dolphin that they became their own sub-species.   

Currently, there are only an estimated 63 individuals (over one year of age) remaining in the population. 

The Threats

Their tendency to stick close to shore and spend time in harbors, estuaries, and shallow bays has had a significant effect on the Maui dolphin’s range. About 90% of the population is now found along a 22-mile stretch of coastline, and they share that coastline with humans. 

The primary threat contributing to the Maui dolphins’ low population is fisheries bycatch. In addition to this danger, the Maui dolphins’ habitat is located right outside Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city.

The high-impact human use in the area includes seismic surveys and seabed mining, all of which are currently managed by the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Whereas many other species of dolphins communicate with whistles, Māui and Hector’s dolphins use short, high frequency clicks.

So what can we do?

In 2008, the Department created the North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary. Within the sanctuary’s boundaries, seismic surveys must follow a code of conduct, but are still allowed, and seabed mining is prohibited only out to two nautical miles along the full length of the sanctuary.

Fishing gear restrictions are also in effect. Set nets, which are fixed in place in the water, are not allowed in certain areas or only allowed if an observer is onboard in others. Trawling, with towed nets behind a boat, is also not allowed in some areas and is prohibited in harbors. Drift nets, which have no point of attachment in the water or on a boat, are only banned in one river.

These regulations, while helpful and a step in the right direction, do not protect the Maui dolphins from the full scale of these threats in all of their primary habitat. While some of these protections extend out to four nautical miles at most, Maui dolphins range up to twenty miles offshore. The current rules are simply not enough. 

There is still hope for the Maui dolphin. The number of adults appears to have stabilized over the past few years, but further protections are still needed. It’s estimated that the population may only be able to grow by 2% per year – roughly one individual per year at their current population size. Here’s how you can help them recover and prevent more loss:

  • WDC has proposed a New Zealand Dolphin Sanctuary that would encompass both islands of New Zealand and include the full extent of the Maui dolphin’s current and historic range as well as the range of the Maui’s close relatives, the South Island’s Hector dolphins. The restrictions included with this sanctuary would remove the biggest immediate threat of bycatch and allow the population to grow.
  • By donating to WDC, you can help support our efforts to establish this sanctuary and hold New Zealand responsible for providing adequate protections for their unique and critically endangered Maui dolphins. You can also subscribe to our blogs and eNews to stay up-to-date on our policy and research efforts for the conservation of this incredible species.  
  • Lastly, help spread the word about Maui dolphins! Educate your family and friends about their struggle to survive and let them know about all the ways they can help. Inspire others to care about these issues by sharing your knowledge so they can understand the importance of their role as ocean stewards, even half a world away.

Remember, all water goes to the ocean, so whether you live on the beach or in the mountains, your everyday life can affect and is affected by our oceans.  It’s also important to remember that regardless of where you live, whales affect your life by fertilizing the phytoplankton that provide the oxygen for every other breath you take!

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to speak up – knowledge is catching! Explain your choices and actions to your friends and family.  You may inspire them to make positive, whale-friendly changes, too. 

Together we can create a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free!

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