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Talk to the Animals: The demise of Maui's dolphin

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North Island Maui's dolphins are in danger.
Photo / DOC
North Island Maui's dolphins are in danger. Photo / DOC

I wonder how many of the people coming out in support of protecting Maui's dolphin habitat would describe themselves as 'angry environmentalists'. This is how one news reporter described the group led by Tamati Coffey that converged on the office of a notably absent Simon Bridges.

It is no longer the domain of the 'environmentalist', angry or otherwise to care about the plight of our wildlife, it is up to all New Zealanders - and this seems to be the case for the critically endangered Maui's dolphin. A Herald poll is showing 80 per cent of Kiwi's feel that no marine sanctuary should be opened up for oil exploration.

Introducing Maui's Dolphin

Found only on the west coast of the North Island, Maui's dolphin is a subspecies of the Hector's dolphin, and is the smallest of all the world's 32 dolphin species. A 'subspecies' describes a group of related organisms that can interbreed but are separated from the main species geographically and have evolved in isolation.

It is estimated that only 55 Maui's dolphin exist in the wild and numbers appear to be declining still. When a species is represented by such a small number, this means that much of the genetic diversity found in the larger population has already been lost. Essentially the species is already partially extinct. Each dolphin lost takes away more of the gene pool, making it essential that the remaining animals are afforded all protection possible.

Population increase is very slow with females not able to breed until they are around eight-years-old and then producing only one calf every two to four years. Lifespan is about 20 years.

The Issue

Over three thousand square kilometers of the marine reserve that the Maui's dolphin calls home is to be opened up for oil exploration. This announcement came just a week after the International Whaling Commission strongly recommended the NZ Government do more to save the species.

The arguments for and against oil exploration:

For:
Conservation minister Dr Nick Smith and Energy and Resources minister Simon Bridges have both expressed the view that the risk from drilling is very small. They say that there has been significant drilling activity in the area already without incident.
The economic benefit is also cited, as a three billion dollar industry employing over seven thousand people.

Against:
Green Party co-leader, Dr Russell Norman says "exploratory drilling is the riskiest phase of oil production and an oil spill could wipe out the last 55 Maui's left. According to Dr Norman, expert scientists say seismic surveys (involving multiple underwater explosions), which are part of petroleum exploration, can harm dolphins' hearing and may push them into unprotected areas where they are more exposed to fishing nets. "Not only would our environment be damaged but the economy, which relies on a clean, green image, could be devastated".

What you can do to help Maui's Dolphin

If you disagree with deep sea drilling within the Maui's dolphin habitat, make your voice known to Government through a submission, signing a petition, contacting your local MP or joining forces with groups taking action against the move.

Other ways to help:
Report sightings of Hector's and Maui's dolphins to the Department of Conservation.
Report set nets in the closed area of the Marine Reserve.
Use a 'no wake speed' when out on the water near dolphins.
Take your rubbish home, and never leave any plastic items on the beach.
Don't feed Maui's dolphins or swim with them.

In my opinion, any risk to what is essentially a remnant population of Mauis Dolphin should not be considered. Losing even one animal wipes out a significant part of the remaining gene pool compromising species recovery. At the risk of sounding like an 'angry environmentalist' it seems to me that interfering with the habitat of a species comprising fifty five animals is nothing short of ludicrous and likely to cause international embarrassment as to our conservation values.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

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