Maui’s Dolphins: Swimming in a sea of all sorts of mischief?


It seems that the dismal plight of the North Island Hector’s dolphin (or the Maui Dolphin) is hitting the news again, and for the same reasons…

According to latest counts there are only 55 of individual dolphins left… of the Maui population that is… period!

For some the jury is still out on whether Maui’s dolphins constitute a new species, a sub-species, or simply an extant population isolated from the other more common South Island Hector’s dolphins.

However according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC):

Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) is the world’s smallest dolphin and is found only on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand and nowhere else in the world. It is New Zealand’s rarest dolphin […]

In 2012 a DOC-commissioned study estimated the Maui’s dolphin population to consist of 55 with a 95% confidence interval of between 48 to 69. The estimate is for individuals aged more than 1 year (i.e. this excludes calves of under a year). This small population of dolphins is thought to have been isolated from their more-numerous relatives, South Island Hector’s dolphin, for thousands of years. Maui’s dolphin used to be known as North Island Hector’s dolphin. But research showed the North and South Island dolphins are separate sub-species that are physically and genetically distinct from each other.”

The endangered status of these dolphins has been known for sometime with ecological, zoological and even epidemiological studies of the population having been undertaken over many years. One zoologist, Otago University’s Dr. Liz Slooten has dedicated years to the study of the cetaceans, and has become quite the advocate.

With joint funding provided by DoC and WWF, Scientists from Otago University and the Department of Conservation have made aerial surveys of the Maui dolphin habitat range (between Maunganui Bluff, near Dargaville, to Pariokariwa Pt, north of New Plymouth) to see how far offshore the dolphins are found and whether this changes seasonally, to check that they are not in danger from fishing nets and trawlers.

Yet, like so many of these things (New Zealand Sea lions come to mind), the drivers behind the population decline are still not known. Consequently marine scientists, eNGOs and the media have fallen back on their usual default driver – the Fishing Industry… in particularly set nets and inshore trawls.


Maui’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) is the world’s smallest dolphin and is found only on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand and nowhere else in the world.

This established default position has given birth to a one-dimensional strategy to ‘sort out’ the decline – to bar fishermen from fishing the habitat area of the dolphins with a regimen of spatial closures and fishing gear type bans… Unfortunately with a proposed cure already in place, the plight of the dolphins departed from what could have been a collaboration of parties towards a single goal of maui dolphin preservation, to one increasingly characterised by advocacy based science, political point scoring, lobbying and the passing of culpability.

The tiniest amount of research, and a considerable paper trail, will reveal a saga that provides very little in the way of objective scientific enquiry as to the real causes of the decline, and very little in the way of problem solving or multi-sector collaboration, which we’ve seen elsewhere. Indeed research will show a campaign (driven by marine scientists and eNGOs) that as we have established, relies almost entirely on a pre-conceived default position that the fisheries are the cause, and that if Maui’s dolphins are too survive, fishing activity within their habitat range must discontinue…

Ten years ago World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the then conservation director (now CEO) Chris Howe said in a press release that a set-net ban in the [Maui’s dolphin habitat] region was only to 4 nautical miles offshore, and trawling was banned only to 1 nautical mile.

 “We cannot underestimate the risk Maui’s face from fishing activity outside these areas.”

Another aspect of the Maui’s dolphin campaign is its use as leverage to provide justification for the extension of similar fishing activity bans to areas inhabited by the South Island Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori). Liz Slooten has long advocated extensive closures around Banks Peninsula, in the South Island.

 “[A]round Banks Peninsula, the dolphins came much closer to shore in summer than winter.The Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary protects most of the population in summer, but in winter only 35 per cent is inside the protected area. If that is the case in the North Island, it might be necessary to extend the offshore boundary.”

A risk assessment to establish risk and attribute the cause of that risk to Maui’s Dolphins was not completed by the Ministry for Primary Industries and Department of Conservation until 2012. 


A risk assessment that establishes risk and attributes the cause of that risk to Maui's Dolphins. Ministry for Primary Industries and Department of Conservation. [click the cover to download the risk assessment report]

A risk assessment that establishes risk and attributes the cause of that risk to Maui’s Dolphins. Ministry for Primary Industries and Department of Conservation.
[click the cover to download the risk assessment report]

The campaign for extended fishing bans in dolphin habitat areas

As one can imagine, with dolphins being arguably the most charismatic of all charismatic megafauna, one endemic species being listed internationally as ‘critically endangered’ (and therefore at a high risk of it becoming extinct in the near future), the campaign for their survival has captured public scrutiny. Not surprisingly the campaign (for extended fishing bans in dolphin habitat areas) has been to date, not only extensive, but also intensive…

It has seen sustained pressure on the Government by eNGOs,the Media, the public and of course opposition politicians who are  using the campaign as leverage to garner political points at the expense of the Government. This pressure has been squarely placed on the Commercial Fishing Industry, who beset on all sides by sectors pointing accusatory fingers, protest their perceived culpability.

OFten the campaign has been theatrical… I remember a funeral march last year… that marched through the Auckland Electorate of  Kumeu-Huapai to New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s electorate office in Helensville demanding urgent action to save the Maui’s dolphin. The Rodney Times reported that the “mourners” included Rodney Labour candidate and former Rodney and Auckland Regional Council representative Christine Rose of Huapai who has long used the issue of protection of the critically endangered dolphin as political leverage.

In a statement Rose said:

The government is consulting on proposals to extend set-net and trawl bans to mitigate some of the dolphin deaths. But some scientists and dolphin advocates say the proposals are inadequate. 

The Fisheries Ministry has recognised that the Maui’s dolphin population cannot sustain a human induced death more than once every 10 to 23 years, if the species is to survive. The protection offered in government consultation documents does not cover the full dolphin habitat, she says. It does not include harbours and out to the 100 metre depth contour, nor “dolphin corridors” between the north and south islands, therefore not eliminating threats to the dolphins appropriately or sustainably.

Rose has been a vociferous campaigner, an an op-ed (Christine Rose: Our reputation at stake with dolphins – 15 Feb 2013) published in the New Zealand Herald wrote:

Wasted chances for rehabilitation inexcusable and could put us on par with China. Our “clean, green” image will be made or destroyed, depending on how we respond to one key indicator – the extinction, or salvation, of Maui’s dolphins. Upon this sub-species, our international reputation may well depend. Indeed, the reality is starting to bite: New Zealand’s status in international environmental indicators has fallen from first overall to 14th in the latest review of the Yale Environmental Index.”

She continues:

Everyone should know about Maui’s dolphins. As an in-shore dolphin they can be seen from west coast beaches and harbours. They feature weekly in New Zealand media because of the risks they face, and the pressure on the New Zealand Government to give them better protection due to their low numbers. For this fact they’ve been in every newspaper from Beijing to Berlin. They’re the world’s smallest, rarest and loveliest marine dolphin, found only here in New Zealand, and there are, according to some recent studies, only 55 adults left in their core, reduced habitat.”

All they need she asserts is free fishing free waters:

Despite their dire state, scientists have shown that if human-induced threats, primarily gillnet fishing, are removed, Maui’s dolphins could recover to a viable level of half their pre-1970s population, (1000 dolphins), by 2050. The North Island Maui’s population also stands a much better chance of surviving if the “dolphin corridor” to the South Island is also protected, allowing their cousins, Hector’s, to travel safely up the West Coast for breeding. The global and local marine science and conservation movement continues to await the Government’s response to the state of Maui’s dolphins.”

This campaign, irrespective of substance, has ebbed and flowed over the years picking up support from every corner of New Zealand society. However it seems that it is reaching a climax now that interim measures have been put in place, and fishermen sit poised to lose everything… with their protests that they just aren’t catching them falling on ears that don’t want to hear?

What does the Seafood Industry Think?

It goes without saying that such a proposal [to exclude fishing from the entire West Coast up to the 100m contour] went down like a lead balloon with the commercial seafood industry.

Dolphin corridors?? According to DOC Maui’s dolphins have been spatially separated from their South Island cousins for over 100 years? Isolation from the Southern population is the major justification put forward for Maui’s dolphins being a different sub-species from the South Island Hector’s Dolphin populations.

Distribution of Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins [which includes 'corridoes' that allow for Maui's to move south to mix with Southern Hector's Populations????] Source:

Distribution of Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins [which includes ‘corridors’ that allow for Maui’s to move south to mix with Southern Hector’s Populations????]

The Rodney Times reports that the seafood industry has urged the government to exercise a holistic approach and consider the full picture to protect dolphins. New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen President Doug Saunders-Loder echoed this:

The proposal to extend the set-net ban along the Taranaki coast while undertaking a review of Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins is a knee jerk reaction that does not consider the full picture. [We]want careful and successful management of this endangered species. However, this proposal puts the blame at the fishermen’s door and ignores all the other known factors including disease, pollution and predators such as sharks and orcas.

Remember I said that there has been very little money spent on research into all the possible causes of the decline.

Rose continued to compare New Zealand with China in her op-ed – anticipating an emotional retort from her readers…

The last country to see the extinction of a dolphin was China with the Yangtze River dolphin. The world condemned the inaction that led to that loss, despite the fact that as a developing country, China is not known for high environmental standards. The risks are even higher for a well-developed, mature market economy. Perhaps the problem is that the market is leading the debate, instead of science, ethics and public opinion. One thing is clear: New Zealand will soon match the environmental record of China.”

In my opinion the very LAST THING WE NEED here is emotional responses, but sadly this campaign is replete with them.

The volume of emotional responses that came out of New Zealand’s blocking of consensus at a meeting of the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea held 8–15 September 2012 was incredible.

The media slammed the NZ Government as being irresponsible. I particularly liked the response of William Trubridge at

At a meeting of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Korea last month there was a vote on what should be done to help this situation.  The hands of 576 IUCN members, including national representatives, NGOs, and researchers went up to say that the only way to protect these dolphins definitively is to extend the ban on gill-net and trawling to the 100-meter depth contour in all areas where the dolphins are found, including harbours.  Amidst this sea of solidarity, a single  hand, that of a New Zealand bureaucrat, went up to say “ahem, it’s okay how it is, thanks…”  Look closely above that hand and you could see the fine strings of its puppeteer back in NZ’s government.

Conservationists, scientists, ocean-lovers, and most other unlobotomized homo sapiens are confused.  It’s understandable that such stubborn myopia is bewildering to the rational mind.  After all a government is a collection of mostly reasonable individuals, and it is hard to imagine sitting down with anyone and not being able to convince them that an entire species –  a singularity of Earth’s biodiversity – is important enough to justify all the precautionary measures recommended by the experts who have studied the species and their demise for decades.  

Status Quo = Extinction

In 100 years no one will care if a handful of fishermen had to find other jobs (the fishermen themselves probably won’t care much in even 10 years), but they will care about a species that is lost forever, and they will remember the infamy and names of a government that did nothing to stop it.

This is stirring Stuff! Angry Stuff! And not conducive to collaboration stuff!

However the proceedings, IUCN Members’ Assembly at the 2012 World Conservation Congress, show that New Zealand’s response to motion 035 Actions to avert the extinctions of rare dolphins: Maui’s dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, Vaquita porpoises and SouthAsian river and freshwater dependent dolphins and porpoises were considered and deliberate.

New Zealand is committed to the protection of Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins, but is unable to support the proposed Motion because it is not consistent with New Zealand government policy on mitigating fishing related risks to them.

New Zealand has extensive measures in place to protect Maui’s dolphins on the West Coast of the North Island throughout their core range – including a ban on the use of commercial set nets out to 7 nautical miles from Pariokariwa Point to North of the Kaipara Harbour. There is no evidence that the 100m depth contour in the proposed motion reflects the limit of Maui’s dolphin or Hector’s dolphins entire range. For this reason, New Zealand does not consider it an appropriate basis on which to base its management actions and New Zealand is therefore unable to support the Motion.”

To this… Opposition MPs had a field day…

Green Party MP Gareth Hughes said the Government was putting the interests of a handful of fishers ahead of the safety of threatened dolphins.

Ironically this move will likely damage the reputation of the wider fishing community, fishery exports, and our clean, green brand. It isn’t hard to give this species a shot at survival: we need to stop needlessly killing them in fishing nets.

Labour MP Ruth Dyson said the Government’s vote was a “disgrace”

It beggars belief that the New Zealand Government could oppose a motion to protect these incredibly vulnerable dolphins in our own waters. The Maui’s dolphin is the most endangered dolphin species in the world, but we won’t stand up for its survival?  It’s appalling.”

What if any Protection/Conservation Measures are in Place

It would seem from all the hoopla that the Government has implemented insufficient response…Well I say not at all… There are robust measures in place that address the protection and conservation of Maui’s Dolphins.

I refer to a Management fact sheet produced by the Ministry for Primary Industries:

The New Zealand Government is looking at ways to ensure the long-term future of Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins. A whole-of-government approach is being taken to reduce the risks to the dolphins. This includes planning, monitoring and commissioning research to ensure invested money is utilised efficiently. The Maui and Hector’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan (TMP) guides management approaches, jointly led by the Department of Conservation (DOC) (for non-fishing-related impacts) and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) (for fishing-related impacts).

The TMP looks at all human-induced threats including fishing, vessel traffic, mining, construction, coastal development, pollution, sedimentation, oil spills, and any other contributing factors. In light of a new population estimate and the accidental capture of either a Maui or Hector’s dolphin off the coast of Taranaki in January 2012 (there is no certainty over what the dolphin actually was), the review of the Maui section of the TMP was given high priority by the Government, and brought forward to 2012. The Hector’s section of the TMP will be reviewed in 2013-14.”

Responsive Management

“In response to new information about the dolphins, the TMP was developed and implemented in 2008. The TMP enables a whole-of-government approach to the management of the dolphins, and incorporates monitoring and research programmes, to test the effectiveness of the protective measures put in place.

For Maui dolphins, there are now a range of fishing and other restrictions that extend across the entire area where they are most commonly found. The best-available information based on sightings indicates the areas where Maui are most commonly found occur within seven nautical miles from shore.For Hector’s dolphins, the areas that pose the greatest risk to the Hector’s population are also covered by various fishing bans and restrictions. Combined, the area covered by restrictions on set netting (the fishing method known to pose the greatest risk), have increased by more than 600 percent between 2003 and 2012. Almost 15,000 square kilometres of the coastal environment is closed to set net activity.

Protective measures to avoid dolphin mortality from trawling activities have increased from 0 in 2003, to 6335 square kilometres in 2012. MPI estimated that the economic impact on the inshore fishing sector of these measures over time would be approximately $80 million.

In 2012, after a Hector’s or Maui dolphin mortality resulting from set net activity was reported in an area outside of the closures implemented by the Government, a closure out to two nautical miles offshore was put in place. DOC has also implemented five marine mammal sanctuaries surrounding key dolphin habitats.”

Below is a map indicating the nature and extent of the measures in place for the purpose of protecting Maui’s dolphins.

Map indicating the nature and extent of the interim measures in place for the purpose of protecting Maui's dolphins https://zen.nzherald.../03112MAUI1.pdf

Map indicating the nature and extent of the interim measures in place for the purpose of protecting Maui’s dolphins

However to most these extensive measures are not enough. Marine scientists and eNGOs who without objective evidence, want fishing restrictions extended more (some like Slooten want it extended to the 100m contour) – which would arguably trigger the extinction of the West Coast fishing industry.

For fishermen in the area – the measures have gone too far… According to an article by Geoff Cumming published in the New Zealand Herald on 03 Nov 2012, If the fishermen are right and there are no Maui’s dolphins off Taranaki, these measures will achieve nothing:

 “It’s not just a handful of fishermen, their crew and families whose livelihoods are at stake. New Plymouth has two fish processors employing a further 30 people. The impact of the interim restrictions on catches has already forced one to lay off staff.”

 However for Cumming, who is pro extension, these measures represent just the beginning:

Their jobs might be a small price to pay for saving an endemic (found only in New Zealand waters) dolphin, not least in sparing the blow to our clean, green image that extinction will bring. But if fishers, marine scientists and conservationists agree on one thing, it is that the latest measures will not save the dolphins.

 Most scientists on a risk assessment panel that informed the review agreed the extent of the dolphins’ range is Wanganui, and wanted fishing restrictions extended that far south. The Department of Conservation wanted the interim Taranaki ban to go out to 7nm, in line with restrictions introduced in 2008 off Auckland and Waikato (as far south as Pariokariwa Pt).

 International agencies including the International Whaling Commission support a ban on set nets and trawlers to the 100m depth contour. But the Ministry of Primary Industries – in charge of the fishing options in the review – gives Carter the choice of sticking with the 2nm ban as far south as Hawera or extending it to 4nm.

 The fishermen say any restrictions are pointless south of Pariokariwa Pt because the dolphins aren’t there. Keith Mawson, of processor Egmont Seafoods, says for the past decade targeting fishing has been a soft option rather than funding research into the Maui’s numbers, location and health.”

 According to zoologist and advocate Liz Slooten:

There isn’t time to obtain the level of proof needed to quieten the fishers. We’ve got to make a precautionary decision and this seems to be lost on MPI.”

What's my point?

What’s my point?

What’s my Point?

In my mind the present measures seem extensive…. extending the area to the 100m contour seems inconsistent with historic evidence, and to me smells of cracking a nut with a sledge hammer!

The assertion by Slooten and Co. and the eNGOS that  “latest measures will not save the dolphins ” is troubling!

I mean what is this pre-disposition in New Zealand with locking up space as the only solution?

We will get nowhere with the green group saying “Its our way or the highway”.

The only way for these dolphins to be saved is to bring everybody into the tent. Yet if this to happen everyone has to listen to each other, collaborate and move forward towards the agreed common goal… MPI’s measures not only reflect the best scientific evidence available, they consider everybody’s interests as well… We have to remember that it is not the measures alone that will ensure the survival of the diminutive dolphin, but the desire of all parties.  I assure you the fishing industry wants to fight for this dolphin too!

However I can’t see this collaboration happening… the campaign from start to finish has become driven by one or two strong personalities in certain places… who will not yield… Lets leave it there!

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