Maui dolphins are the world's rarest and smallest marine dolphin.

They are unique to New Zealand and, critically endangered, there are just 63 adults left, somewhere off Taranaki.

The numbers have dwindled in the face of fishing operations such as set-netting and trawling.

Now global conservation group WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has taken a proactive approach by commissioning consultant BERL to assess the cost of transitioning the fishing industry to dolphin-safe methods.


That cost is estimated at between $40 million and $65 million over three years - a not inconsiderable sum, but then a unique species is arguably beyond any price tag.

The WWF is calling on the Government to fund the transition to long-lining and away from set nets and trawling. It points out that the estimated $25 million in the first year is less than three years' worth of ministerial travel expenses.

But don't expect ministers to sacrifice their free travel any time soon. Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy has rejected the Government chipping in.

He maintains that existing restrictions on commercial fishing operations in the dolphins' habitat are sufficient protection for this rare aquatic breed.

Of course, if he's wrong, it's game over for Maui. There won't be any second chances, so Mr Guy might want to take another long hard look before he becomes Minister for Extinct Species.

Another reason for a re-examination of the claimed protection and restrictions around the dolphins' habitat is suggested by a Greenpeace report yesterday.

It said that Mr Guy's ministry was paying a company controlled and owned by the fishing industry lobby to collect data, manage so-called "public registers", register and unregister vessels, monitor overfishing and quota holdings, and even provide Official Information Act responses instead of the ministry.

So perhaps someone in Government, other than Mr Guy, can look at the Maui dolphin and decide saving it should be a matter of policy. It might even be a vote winner.

PS: The WWF's call for protection of the dolphin includes a moratorium on marine mining activities in the area which would rule out Trans-Tasman Resources seabed mining application.