Ecotourism drive threatens base of the industry, writes Alexander Gillespie.

It's called the sixth extinction. It follows the earlier five, in which species disappeared forever in huge numbers within relatively short periods of time. The sixth extinction may be the greatest yet.

The present extinction spasm is happening at a rate much faster than previously. Whereas the earlier extinction spasms took thousands or millions of years, this one is being undertaken in hundreds.

It is happening, species by species, right before our eyes. Generally extinctions are part of a natural process in that it is part of the record of this planet. If extinction did not occur, the dinosaurs would not have made way for humanity.


This sixth wave is different from the previous extinction spasms.

The first difference is in the speed this is occurring. Estimates in 2010 suggested the rate was more than one extinction per 100,000 species a year and rising. This is estimated to be about 1000 times higher than was previously typical over the history of the Earth.

The second difference is that almost all past extinctions have occurred by processes that did not involve humanity. Today, we are the agents of extinction. However, the way our species causes change has transformed. Historically, we hunted species to extinction. Now we drive them there as collateral damage.

The Maui's dolphin is one small fraction of this problem. It has had a recorded drop in its numbers from about 135 in the mid-1980s to about 55. It is not alone. There are 7108 vertebrate species threatened with extinction. Within this bracket, about 21 per cent of mammals are either threatened, endangered or critically endangered.

To be classified as critically endangered means a species' numbers have decreased, or will decrease, by 80 per cent within the next three generations. Many of these species are remnants of once great populations.

To suggest such small populations are vulnerable - in terms of either biological or geographical extinction - is an understatement. Yet even if we do not intend to drive them away, we rarely recognise that when dealing with endangered species caution should be the supreme principle and the more vulnerable the resource, the more precautionary we should be.

The debate over Maui's dolphin, which went backwards and forwards through the courts for the past decade, is a good example of this need to be cautious. In the last case, those urging the fullest possible bans on the set nets that may have been in the habitat of these unique dolphins lost the day.

With retrospect, it would appear the advocates for the Maui's dolphin were correct and as a consequence we are on the cusp of losing the species. If this was the only example, and if we had not spent decades chastising other countries at the highest international levels for their poor records in the conservation of whales, then perhaps it could be forgiven.

But neither scenario is correct. Not only that, New Zealand is a country which now has Whale Rider woven through its cultural self-image and which has found international success for being "100 per cent Pure".

This success is so great that, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the number of international visitors is contributing nearly $6 billion to the domestic economy, thereby supporting about one in 10 positions of employment. Our "Green" image is at the forefront of this success and, with its continued success, projections are that by 2015 there will be 3.5 million arrivals per year. To meet such projections, we are told we must expand our offerings.

The problem, as has been shown overseas, is that continually pushing the boundaries in areas such as ecotourism, our efforts can collapse the foundations of the industry itself. This has also happened in New Zealand.

For example, while some dolphin swimming enterprises (around Kaikoura and in the Bay of Islands) appear to be sustainable, others (around Doubtful Sound) have been troubled. That is, the population of Bottlenose dolphins in the Doubtful Sound complex, which was 69 individuals at the end of 1994, declined to 56 by the end of 2006.

This decline, directly attributable to the effect of wildlife-watching vessels, was one of the steepest recorded for a dolphin population not exposed to direct or indirect takes from fishing. It is likely that this same mistake is about to be repeated at Kaikoura with the large whales.

In this area, despite scientific uncertainties and a differing of views, governmental departments have recommended the whale watching industry be inflated by what could amount to a 40 per cent expansion of capacity.

At the same time they have not recommended that the best technologies to control some of the impacts be mandated.

To complete the process, the Government has just given the go-ahead to start exploring for oil in the same area, which it can do because, despite having strong potential as a World Heritage site, the important waters around Kaikoura are not a marine protected area.

The fact that similar explorations for oil have had detrimental impacts on whales elsewhere, overlaid with New Zealand's low operating standards in this area compared with other countries, will eventually lead to the same predictable, grim outcome.