Maui’s Dolphins: Rather than pointing fingers, let’s negotiate the polemic and point the way forward


I been following the Plight of the New Zealand Maui’s dolphin here at GfBf:


According to the 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 […] with a DOC-commissioned 2012 study estimated the Maui’s dolphin population to consist of 55 with a 95% confidence interval of between 48 to 69.”

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

In short the Maui’s dolphin is on the precipice of extinction. And worse still, in a country that prides itself on its effective, pro-active and precautionary environmental management.  Somehow the Maui’s dolphin has fallen through the cracks, and now it has got to the point that if something is not done… New Zealand will face the unthinkable…

Yet in this climate of catastrophe a maelstrom of accusations, finger pointing and emotive tit for tat is blocking any progress:

  • Cetacean scientists are blaming the fishermen who they say are 95% responsible for the decline;
  • The Government is concerned with the fusing of scientific evidence and eNGO advocacy and the lack of objective science;
  • The Media is publicly trying Taranaki fishermen and making claims that the Government is not doing enough;
  • The Government is countering with spatial closures of virtually the entire West Coast of the North Island; & lastly
  • The Fishermen who are wearing it all are claiming that they do not catch Maui’s dolphins and that the measures imposed by the Government are unduly arduous.

What a Cacophony!

In earlier pasts we have had a hard look at the science, have looked at the nature and extent of the interactions between Maui’s dolphins and fishing vessels and have looked at the records of Maui’s dolphin mortalities. None of this analysis has provided any clarity… Not really, all that it has really done is increased opacity and provided additional uncertainty to fuel debate.

There simply is no time for that, is there?

  • Sure Fishermen can wear some blame. They have interacted with dolphins, very occasionally. Unfortunately, risk is irreversibly linked to potential adverse outcomes… and the potential adverse outcome of one or two Maui’s dolphin mortalities in a population of 55 is very significant;
  • Sure the quality of the science is poor, and most of the scientific and technical personnel who should be providing objective advice to Government and Marine Managers are in bed with eNGOs advocating an end to fishing, marine mammal sanctuaries that comprise most of New Zealand’s coastal waters and other management measures;
  • Sure the Media’s coverage which is anti-fishermen, anti-Government and pro- scientific advocacy has skewed the debate and lead to national outrage and outpourings of emotion, this leads to more interest, and sells more papers;
  • Sure politicians are using the Maui’s debate to score political points, and the Government (which has the ability to impose a plethora of interventions) has instead dragged their feet, limiting management responses to spatial closures. This approach has had no effect on the population decline and has had a monumental adverse impact of the West Coast North Island Seafood Industry.

THIS FIASCO has created a culture of mistrust, which is the opposite of what is needed.

To save the Maui’s dolphin, we all need to sing from the same song sheet. We need to put aside egos, the point scoring. We have to stop saying “I am right way and your arewrong!”. We need to leave the science to the scientists, and the management to the managers. Personalities and perceptions of expertise have to be seen in context, and considered irrelevant outside that context … If Maui’s are to have a chance we have to do all of that and more.

Most of all we need to act … In unison

Hector’s dolphins have a unique rounded dorsal fin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The solution is clear!

I hate to be one of those people who rely on movies to provide relevant epistemology, but in my search to provide rationale for my belief that there must be a solution to the Maui’s dolphin cacophony, I seem to be unable to shake the image of the Merovingian on the Matrix Reloaded (2003) extolling his ‘one constant’ that there is:

“…One universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.”

But he may be right. If there is a problem there must be a solution.

A very well respected person from the Seafood Industry sent me a three pronged solution (below) that really must be shared. It is so simple, yet I am not surprised that such an ease of solution was overlooked, given the present status of the Maui’s dolphin fiasco:

  1. Get in there and intervene as soon as possible, and remove some animals from the wild for breeding
  2. Collaborate and objectively assess situation to find drivers of the decline and their solutions
  3. Negotiate the polemic… and meet the real objective which is to save the dolphins

1) Intervention

Maui’s dolphins are in trouble and the New Zealand Government is not doing enough to halt the trajectory towards their extinction.  Removing every fishing boat from the vicinity of Maui’s dolphin habitat will not halt the decline. It is past that now. It is time for intervention.

The plight of the Maui’s Dolphin is now no different from that of the Chatham Islands Black Robin (Petroica traversi), the American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) & Koala (Phascolarctos cinereu), which were all at one time also on the brink of extinction. For example the Californian Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) which had became extinct in the wild in 1987 had a population of just 22 individuals. It is estimated that there are now around 450 birds. So just as active intervention saved the black robin and the Californian condor from extinction, intervention is needed to save the Maui’s dolphin Just like what was done for the black robin and the kakapo (Strigops habroptila), some Maui’s dolphins need to be removed from the wild and breed to increase numbers (setting  aside genetic material for future should also be undertaken).

The Seafood Industry could lead this. After all the New Zealand Seafood industry has no shortage of innovative individuals who have the ‘get up and go’ that is needed to implement such an innovative initiative.

Maybe I am overly and naively optimistic… but I honestly believe that the New Zealand public and maybe even the Government (once they realise they are on a winner) would get in behind such a Seafood Industry lead initiative. The New Zealand public are good at getting behind good causes. Look at Peter Blake’s Red Socks (and he wasn’t saving a threatened species).

2) Find drivers behind the decline and the solutions

Despite what rhetoric is sold by the media, (risk aside) increased fishery observation, and mandatory reporting have demonstrated that fishing attributed mortalities are not the main threat to Maui’s dolphins, nor is fishing the primary threat to Maui’s survival. This much is clear.

So what is the main driver behind the decline? Is it environmental degradation of coastal waters? changes in the availability of their diet? disease? No-one knows for certain.

We need to get to the bottom of it.

We need to undertake an objective and independent expert review to establish the risks to the Maui’s dolphin population and to propose solutions.

The Government should drive this. They should cast the net as widely as they can, and seek expertise from wherever it can be found.  They should engage with interested parties from all corners of New Zealand, and seek international expertise.

3) Negotiate the polemic

For any assessment of the plight of Maui’s dolphins to be effective, it has to be based on the best available scientific/technical information. Assessment needs to be driven on facts and not emotion.

In order to make any progress and meet the undisputed objective (which is to save the dolphins) we need to assert interests and not positions.

Is pointing scoring, punishing, blaming and finger pointing meeting our objective, and saving the dolphins. You’d think with the amount of it going on that it is.

My last word is this…. Save the Dolphins

One thought on “Maui’s Dolphins: Rather than pointing fingers, let’s negotiate the polemic and point the way forward

  1. Pingback: Cambodian Local newspaper journalist reporting on IUU fishing beaten to death by fishermen | Green Fish Blue Fish

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