The International Whaling Commission has chided New Zealand's efforts to save the world's rarest species of dolphin from extinction.
In a newly published report, the IWC's Scientific Committee sounded "extreme concern" over the dwindling numbers of New Zealand's Maui's dolphin, adding the Government's present management measures fell well short of what was needed to reverse their decline.
Conservation group WWF-New Zealand today said the world was now watching New Zealand, and the country needed to "do the right thing"and save the species.
It is estimated that there are only 55 Maui's dolphins -- found along the northern half of the North Island's west coast -- aged more than one-year-old.
Using calculations from a New Zealand scientist's data, conservation group NABU International last month claimed the species could face extinction by 2031.
The IWC scientific committee recommended:
* Extending protection for Maui's dolphin from Maunganui Bluff to Whanganui.
* Extending protection to 20 nautical miles offshore.
* Banning set-net fishing and trawling throughout the dolphin's habitat.
While the committee commended the Government for maintaining interim measures for the species, and adding an additional 350 square kilometre set net species, these fell "significantly" short of those previous recommended, it said.
"The committee reiterates its extreme concern about the continued decline of such a small population as the human-induced death of even one dolphin would increase the extinction risk for this subspecies," the report added.
"It also reiterates that rather than seeking further scientific evidence it is of highest priority to take immediate management actions that will eliminate bycatch of Maui's dolphins.
"The committee urges the New Zealand Government to commit to specific population increase targets and timelines, and respectfully requests that reports be provided annually on progress towards conservation goals."
The call has been echoed today by conservation groups.
"This report confirms that Maui's dolphins are at risk of extinction and that they need to be protected across their range for them to have a chance at survival," WWF-NZ marine species advocate Milena Palka said.
Last month, WWF-New Zealand launched the Last 55 campaign, with the aim of collecting a petition with 55,000 signatures before this year's general election.
"It is time for the Government to listen to science, reason and the IWC, we need to protect the last 55 Maui's dolphins across their range before it's too late," Ms Palka said.
"New Zealand prides itself on its international reputation and has successfully fought for protection of whales through the IWC, now it's time to listen.
"If we are to continue to have credible standing at the IWC when we call for protection of whales then we need to listen to them on Maui's dolphins as well."
The world was watching New Zealand, she said, and country needed to "do the right thing" and save the dolphins.
Forest and Bird claimed while the Government had slightly extended the zone in which set nets were prohibited, off the North Island's west coast, it had "refused" to create a comprehensive Maui's dolphin sanctuary, in which gill nets, trawling, mining, and seismic testing would be banned.
The organisation was campaigning for such a sanctuary, which would include the dolphin's entire habitat.
"The IWC has made it clear that what New Zealand has done so far to protect the world's most endangered dolphin is not up to the job," Forest and Bird's advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said.
Similar calls came from Labour's conservation spokesperson, Ruth Dyson, and Green Party oceans spokesperson Gareth Hughes.
"There are growing calls for an international boycott on buying New Zealand fish because our fishing practices threaten the future of Maui's dolphin," Ms Dyson said.
"It is the government that sets the rules -- and it needs to listen to the best scientific advice available if we are to protect our dolphins and our fishing industry."
She said the recommendations should be implemented -- and the fishing industry should be "supported to transition to sustainable fishing practices, rather than just being left in the lurch".
"There doesn't have to be a loser here."
Mr Hughes meanwhile described the report as "hugely embarrassing" for the Government, saying it highlighted a "significant failure" in its response to protect the dolphin.
"National's piecemeal changes have been deemed by the IWC to be inadequate to stop Maui's extinction."
A spokeswoman for the Ministry for Primary Industries earlier told the Herald there was no dispute the Maui's dolphin population was at a "very low level", but said New Zealand had taken a "pro-active approach" to securing their long term future.
That had been underpinned by the Maui's and Hector's Dolphin Threat Management Plan (TMP), which had been in place since 2008, the spokeswoman said.
The ministry, with the Department of Conservation, were establishing a marine research and advisory group made up of scientific and stakeholder experts, who would develop a research programme to "support the evolution" of the TMP.
Under the present TMP, a range of restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing were currently in place to manage fishing-related mortality, which were established following "extensive evaluation" of the risks facing the dolphins, including assessment by a panel of international scientific experts, the spokeswoman said.
Further, she said, the Government had not seen any analysis or evidence that supported recent research suggesting existing protection measures would lead to the Maui's dolphins' functional extinction by 2031.