One of the smallest, and rarest, marine mammals in the world, Hector’s dolphins, are found only in the shallow coastal waters off of New Zealand, but they continue to face threats that have conservationists worried they may not survive.
There are two subspecies of these dolphins, which are genetically distinct from each other: the South Island Hector’s dolphins, who can be found off of New Zealand’s South Island and the Maui’s dolphin, who can be found off the west coast of the North Island where there are only an estimated 55 individuals over the age of one left in existence.
The Maui’s dolphin is listed as critically endangered and continues to struggle against its biggest threats — commercial and recreational gillnet fishing and trawling, but they also face threats from pollution, boat strikes, a lack of genetic diversity and seismic testing.
Some actions have been taken by the government, including the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988 and restricting gillnetting and trawling in part of the dolphins’ habitat last year, but it hasn’t been enough.
“Time is of the essence, with populations this low, numbers can drop off very rapidly,” Greenpeace campaigner Karli Thomas told the AFP. “We’re worried the government is delaying to the point of no return for Maui’s dolphins. Just waiting for them to drop off the agenda because they’re extinct is not solving the problem, that’s the loss of a species from the planet.”
The government’s efforts have also not met a call from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for an immediate ban on these harmful activities to ensure their survival. According to the New Zealand Herald, the government instead called for submissions for a management plan and said it would assess the risks dolphins face and the impact of a ban on the local fishing community. Submissions were closed in November, but nothing else has been done.
Fishermen claim they’re being scapegoated for the problems these dolphins face and blame the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis, but according to Liz Slooten, an associate professor of zoology at Otago University, the government estimates that five dolphins are killed annually as bycatch, reports the AFP.
Five sounds like a small number, but to put it into perspective, according to the Nature Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, the population can only only absorb one human-induced death every 10-23 years because they mature and reproduce so slowly.
Conservationists want to see harmful activities stopped immediately, along with expanded habitat protection and the establishment of safe corridors between the North and South Island. The IWC is currently meeting in Jeju, South Korea to discuss their future, among other issues. Hopefully, New Zealand will take immediate action to keep Maui’s dolphins from disappearing forever.
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