The last remaining 55 of world's rarest species of dolphins could disappear within three decades if New Zealand doesn't act now, wildlife advocates say.

The Last 55 campaign was launched by WWF-New Zealand at the Maritime Museum in Auckland today, calling on the Government to extend protection of marine reserves to cover the habitats of Maui's dolphins.

The campaign launched a petition to attempt to collect 55,000 signatures before this year's general election.

"Today, WWF is saying enough is enough. We're running out of time," said WWF-NZ executive director Chris Howe.


"It is election year, and we believe all politicians must act."

Maui's dolphins are an inshore coastal species with limited home range, slow to breed, and only found in the West Coast of the North Island.

The species has been in rapid decline since the fishing practice of set-netting and trawling was introduced during the 1970s, when the dolphins numbered around 1800. Now only 55 remain.

The International Whaling Commission reiterated calls last week for the Government to step up measures to protect Maui's Dolphins, saying they could face imminent extinction by 2031.

Over the last 10 years, measures have been slowly introduced to protect the species, but Mr Howe said they were nowhere near far enough.

"There's a variety of set-netting and trawling restrictions in different places, but it only covers less than half of the land, so you've got dolphins that are still at risk of being caught in the nets."

The Last 55 campaign will call on the Government to extend full ban on set-netting and trawling to an area between Maunganui Bluff to the Whanganui River mouth, and extending 100 metres out from the coast.

"If you only protect them in half or less, you don't get half the dolphins, you get a decline towards extinction," said Mr Howe.

A Facebook app, designed by Ogilvy & Mather, was launched alongside the petition, and allows users to visualise losing their entire friends list except for 55 people. Users on other social media platforms can participate through creating and sharing a 55 minute-long Spotify music playlist.

"55 is a sad number, but it's also a motivating number because it demands attention," said Angus Hennah, Ogilvy & Mather New Zealand executive creative director.

A 2012 government-appointed panel of experts found the practice of set-netting and trawling killed an average of five Maui's dolphins per year.

"It's a very fine nylon mesh, and the dolphins can't detect this net, so they get tangled in it and drown," WWF marine species advocate Milena Palka.

While extending protective measures would affect the fishing industry, Ms Palka said the Government needed to step in and help research alternative methods of fishing. She pointed to the example of the Gulf of California porpoise (vaquita), the world's most endangered small marine cetacean, where the Mexican Government compensated fishermen and helped them change to less harmful equipment.