The New Zealand government has announced half measures that will fail to save the remaining estimated 55 Maui's dolphins from imminent extinction, warns global conservation organisation WWF.
"There are now fewer Maui's dolphins than kakapo left in the world," said Rebecca Bird, WWF-New Zealand's Marine Programme Manager. "And yet this decision means the government is knowingly allowing a method of fishing that kills dolphins to go ahead in their habitat. Instead of seizing the opportunity to give Maui's the best chance for survival and population recovery, these measures are simply not enough to protect the species from extinction," she said.
The interim measures will minimally increase protection on the Taranaki coast south from Pariokariwa Point to Hawera including extending the set net ban out to 2-nautical miles and allowing the use of commercial set nets between 2 to 7 nautical miles when an observer is on board.
The measures fail to adequately protect dolphins from commercial and recreational gillnet fishing and trawling throughout their entire range.
Fishing is the number one threat to their survival. The marine corridor between the South and North Islands and harbours also remain largely unprotected despite this being important habitat for critically endangered Maui's dolphins.
"The newly announced measures are weaker than the government's own proposed option to best manage the risk to Maui's dolphins. After months of delay, it is shocking that there are still critical areas of Maui's habitat where they could drown in gillnets and trawl nets," said Ms Bird. "The measures also fail to protect the marine corridors that connect Hector's dolphins from the south with Maui's, which scientists consider could hold the key to the survival of the species."
The Minister of Primary Industries announced the measures after public consultations and a lengthy delay, pending a review of the Hectors and Maui's Dolphin Threat Management Plan later this year.
"This area should have been fully protected back in 2008 when the government introduced new fishing restrictions. Yet it has taken more dead dolphins, an obstructive legal challenge by the fishing industry and further evidence of a serious decline in the population before the government acted. A Maui's dolphin was reported killed by a commercial fisher off the Taranaki in January, in an area of known dolphin habitat that we have long argued should be off limits to gill nets," says Ms Bird.
"We need to do everything we can to ensure the decline of these dolphins is reversed. Small steps will not achieve this; we need bold measures and genuine leadership that will ensure a future for these dolphins."
The official estimate placing the population of Maui's dolphins at just 55 individuals over the age of one was released by the Department of Conservation in March this year. It was based on DNA sampling and profiling carried out by a team of scientists at Auckland University.
Government commissioned science indicates that we can only afford to lose one dolphin at the hands of humans every 10 to 23 years without impacting on the population's ability to recover.
"We hope history will prove this not to be a case of too little, too late," said Ms Bird. "WWF will continue to speak on behalf of the vast majority of New Zealanders who want strong government action to save this precious species. The global community are also watching. Maui's are in such a precarious situation we simply cannot afford to lose a single dolphin."
WWF is calling for New Zealanders to join its campaign for Maui's to be protected from all threats throughout their range, at www.stoptheirextinction.org.nz
Notes to editors
WWF is calling on the Government to ban set net fishing throughout Hector's and Maui's dolphins' habitat, and to further restrict trawling to prevent more dolphins dying needlessly in nets. It is also campaigning for the implementation of a government-led effective action plan for the recovery of these dolphins that identifies, manages and mitigates all other threats to the species, such as boat strike, pollution, coastal development, sand-mining and exploration for oil and gas.
The Government has proposed bringing forward the Maui's section of the planned 2013 review of Threat Management Plan (TMP) to 2012. WWF is supportive of this proposal but submit the review needs to ensure Hectors and Maui's are considered together rather than separately because of the commonality of the threats and connectivity of the populations.
Maui's dolphins are an inshore species found only on the west coast of the North Island, and their current range extends from Taranaki to Dargaville. They are a subspecies of the South Island Hector's dolphin; they share the same small size and distinctive rounded dorsal fins but are genetically distinct.
WWF submitted on the interim protection measures urging a precautionary approach. WWF called for:
o a complete set net closure from Maunganui Bluff to Hawera, into all harbours, and out to 100m water depth
o an inshore trawling restriction from Maunganui Bluff to Hawera, into all harbours, and out to 100m water depth; and 100% observer coverage throughout the area where trawling is permitted to occur
o a suspension of all seismic and mining activity from Maunganui Bluff to Hawera, into all harbours, and out to 100m water depth until review of the TMP is complete
o protection of the inter-island marine corridor between Farewell Spit and Hawera