Horrific dolphin deaths show Māui at risk

Posted on 19 March 2008   |  
Photos of 22 dead common dolphins, killed in trawl nets along the west coast of the North Island last December, are horrific and sobering proof that current fishing restrictions cannot adequately protect Māui dolphins.

The photos were released yesterday by the Conservation Minister, Steve Chadwick.

With just 111 individuals, Māui are the world’s most rare marine dolphin and teeter on the brink of extinction, says WWF-New Zealand Executive Director, Chris Howe.

“We have been pushing the Government since 2004 to put adequate protection in place for these critically endangered marine animals which are only found along the North Island’s west coast, nowhere else in the world. That’s the same coast where the 22 common dolphins were killed last December.

“No-one can now claim that the fishing industry’s voluntary Marine Mammal Operating Procedure can possibly provide adequate protection for Māui. While many fishers honour the voluntary code, these photos show that it will only take one or two who don’t to wipe out a species as fragile as Māui. It’s time for the Government to take some meaningful action,” Howe says.

WWF-New Zealand is calling for a total ban on set nets, and for trawling to be banned in the shallow waters where the dolphins live.

Howe says the photos underline the need for this action. “Elements of the fishing industry lobby have continually tried to downplay the major threat set nets and trawling pose to dolphins, particuarly Māui and Hector’s which live in shallow coastal waters. In her statement yesterday, the Conservation Minister confirmed it is ‘not uncommon for dolphins to be captured in nets in this way’. When we’re talking about just 111 Māui, then the threat is simply too great. If just one more animal dies in fishing nets, these dolphins could be extinct within a generation.”

Decisions on a draft threat management plan for Hector’s and Māui dolphins, delayed last November to allow more than 2450 submissions to be analysed, are expected by the end of the month from the Ministers of Conservation and Fisheries. Howe says the photos give the Ministers little room to move: “Those decisions must ban set nets entirely, and remove trawl nets from areas where the dolphins live.

“Because Māui and Hector’s dolphins are found only in New Zealand waters, the responsibility for protecting them sits squarely on our shoulders. Which of us would want their extinction on our conscience, simply because we didn’t act when we still had a chance? Which Minister would want that to be his or her legacy?

“The lack of adequate progress has been immensely frustrating for us, but for the dolphins it’s been deadly.”


  1. Hector’s and Māui dolphins are New Zealand’s sole endemic dolphin species - that means they are not found anywhere else on planet Earth. It has only one other endemic marine mammal - the New Zealand sea lion (formerly known as Hooker’s).
  2. Māui are the most rare marine dolphin in the world with an estimated population of just 111 individuals, and are on the brink of functinal extinction as a species. They are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as critically endangered. There are only two worse categories - extinct, and extinct in the wild.
  3. Māui are a subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin. The three South Island coastal populations of Hector’s are estimated at 7270 animals – which also puts it among the world’s most rare dolphins. The IUCN considers the Hector’s as endangered.
  4. Both Hector’s and Māui are tiny – around 1.5 metres long – and have a rounded dorsal fin that looks like a ‘Mickey Mouse’ ear.
  5. The reason the dolphins are at risk is because they live close to shore, which places them at great risk from fishing – specifically, drowning after becoming entangled in commercial and amateur set nets and inshore trawl nets. Boat strikes, coastal development and pollution are also factors.
  6. Because both species only live about 20 years and are low, slow breeders, any human-induced deaths have a huge impact.
  7. Some fishing restrictions have been put in place, such as banning set nets from certain areas. However, dolphins are still dying, which shows these steps are not enough.
  8. There is huge concern that, without immediate protection, Māui could be extinct within a generation – any further deaths mean the population will simply not be able to sustain itself.
  9. The dolphins’ fragile status was first recognised nearly 10 years ago, in 1999. It has taken this long for the Government to finally issue a draft Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan (August 2007). This draft has still not been finalised.
  10. Set nets and trawl nets are unequivocally acknowledged by New Zealand’s Ministry of Fisheries and Department of Conservation as the significant threat to both Hector’s and Māui dolphins.
  11. Other ways to catch fish are available that don’t kill dolphins or harm other marine life – the great work being done by New Zealand fishers to reduce seabird by-catch shows what the industry can achieve when it wants to.
  12. The Government has the power and mandate to stop the extinction from happening. The Fisheries Act 1996 (s9 and s10) requires the government to act with caution to ensure sustainability.
For more information contact WWF-New Zealand Communications Manager Jenny Riches on 04 4714288 or jriches@wwf.org.nz


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