The rarest marine dolphin in the world – down to 111 individuals following decades of entanglement in fishing nets – is to receive protection over more of its range from the New Zealand government following several years of sustained WWF campaigning.
The critically-endangered Maui’s dolphins, living only along the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, could be functionally extinct within just 25 years largely as a result of a losing battle with fishing nets.
Unable to detect the fine mesh, dolphins can quickly become entangled and drown. Now Maui’s numbers are so low they could be functionally extinct, unless they are given total protection.
Since 2002, WWF has sustained pressure on the New Zealand government to remove all threats to the Maui’s dolphin and its South Island cousin, the Hector’s dolphin – which has suffered a population decline from an estimated 26,000 in the 1970s to just 7,270 today.
From 1 October 2008, set net and trawl fishing will be banned in more of the areas where Maui’s dolphins and Hector’s dolphins range.
“We’re thrilled the government has finally acted,” said Rebecca Bird, Marine Programme Manager for WWF-New Zealand. “The new measures mean fewer dolphins will die in fishing nets, and that’s a strong first step.
“After years of government delays and more dolphin deaths, we are now seeing real action to improve their chances of survival.”
Though a step forward, the protection measures don’t go far enough for the dolphin populations to recover. Maui’s dolphins won’t be protected inside harbours or in the southern extent of their alongshore range, while Hector’s dolphins along the west coast will remain unprotected from trawl fishing and only given limited protection from set nets.
Based on population modeling by University of Otago scientists Dr Elisabeth Slooten and Dr Steve Dawson, the new protection will at best hold Hector’s dolphin numbers at their current depleted level.
With such low numbers, this still leaves Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins at risk of extinction and WWF is continuing its campaign to ban net fishing throughout the dolphins’ range.
“Total protection is the only way to give the dolphins the chance to recover so they are no longer at risk of extinction,” said Bird. “We want a future where Hector’s and Maui’s return to their historic abundance and distribution. These measures are the first step towards this.”
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