The Government's proposed marine mammal sanctuary aims to amend the "radical" decline of dolphins in the Bay of Islands and could be in place as soon as August.
The proposed Bay of Islands Marine Mammal Sanctuary will provide a safe haven, particularly for bottlenose dolphins, which could be extinct in the area by next year because of the heavy impact of vessels and people on its population over the years.
Conservation Minister Kiri Allan announced the plan in Paihia on Thursday.
If it goes ahead, swimming with dolphins will continue to be banned in the Bay, and all vessels must maintain a 400m distance from marine mammals.
Vessels will be restricted to 5 knots within two "marine mammal safe zones".
Allan encouraged New Zealanders to have their say on the plan, which was developed with Ngā Hapū o te Pēwhairangi.
"The purpose of the sanctuary is to protect the taonga out here," Allan said.
"It's important that the community is engaged. It's your area, your taonga and at the end of the day, the decision will sit with you."
Research shows a dramatic decline of 91 per cent in the local bottlenose dolphin population, from 278 in 1999 to just 26 recognisable individuals in 2020.
Of these 26, only 16 now frequently visit the Bay.
"We have been monitoring the bottlenose dolphin in the Bay of Islands for the last 20 years, implementing measures to protect them when necessary," Allan said.
"However ongoing human activity has had a significant impact on the biologically important behaviours of these mammals, behaviours which are critical to their survival."
When dolphins are interacting with people, they are not feeding, resting or looking after their young.
Latest research shows a 75 per cent calf mortality rate.
In the summer of 2019/2020, no new calves were born for the first time on scientific record.
John Tiatoa, Ngā Hapū kaitiaki o te Pēwhairangi and Te Uri Taniwha representative, said the sanctuary was a welcome and "valid" move to protect precious marine life.
"Over this summer our hapu representatives have been on the water to see the activities taking place out there, and there is need for this sanctuary.
"As humans we need to take responsibility for some of the activities we're doing."
Hugh Rihari of Ngāti Torehina, said the sanctuary was "desperately needed".
"The statistics are not good, the mortality rate is huge.
"We need people to understand the plight of the dolphins and we need to pull together to ensure they survive and their numbers increase."
Vanessa McKay, owner of Paihia-based Carino Wildlife Cruises, said she fully supports a marine mammal sanctuary.
"It will affect us but we don't know what the full details are yet.
"It's a good thing because dolphins are declining in population. We need to change our behaviour so they come back to the Bay, and if that's what it takes, we need to be the generation to make that happen.
"As a commercial operator if it's going to bring dolphins back, we're happy to do that."
Bay of Islands marine scientist Jochen Zaeschmar, a trustee of the Far Out Ocean Research Collective, said in principle the sanctuary was a good idea.
However, "the devil is in the detail", he said.
"Dolphins do need more protection; the question is whether a sanctuary is the right solution and where and what exactly can and can't happen. Those are all important issues."
Since 2009, permits for viewing whales and dolphins in the region has been restricted to four commercial vessels.
In 2019 tourists in New Zealand were banned from swimming with bottlenose dolphins, after DoC research showed humans were "loving the dolphins too much", and affecting their resting and feeding behaviour.
The same year DoC renewed the permits so tours could continue but with conditions to reduce the impact on dolphins.
However, current regulations "do not adequately address marine mammal interactions from private or recreational vessels", Allan said.
DoC marine biodiversity senior ranger Cat Peters said the rules would apply to every boat in the bay.
However, Carino, Fuller GreatSights and Explore would still be allowed to take passengers on cruises to view marine mammals, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon.
Bottlenose dolphins would only get daily afternoon visit, she said.
New Zealand has eight sanctuaries for marine mammals.
Public consultation will run for 28 days from April 12 and include community drop-in sessions and a public consultation document.
A final decision will be made after the consultation process.
Make a submission via www.boimms.co.nz or email boimms.govt.nz or write to Department of Conservation, 34 Landing Rd, Kerikeri 0230.