The New Zealand dolphin sanctuary

In 1970, there were 30,000 New Zealand dolphins. Now there are only 7,000. And, for the small population around New Zealand’s North Island (known as the Maui’s dolphin), it’s even more critical – there only around 55 left alive! Unless the government acts NOW, the Maui’s will be gone in as little as 38 years.

It’s fishing nets that will kill this unique little dolphin found only in New Zealand waters. They are dying in nets at a much higher rate than they reproduce. Their fate is in the hands of the New Zealand government, and the government CAN save them. It really is simple. All the dolphins need to ensure their future is a safe place to live – an area free from the nets that will cause their extinction. 

Existing protection for the endangered New Zealand dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori – also known as Hector’s dolphin) includes protected areas in North and South Island waters. New Zealand dolphins are found close to shore, in waters up to 100m deep (consisting of the green, red and purple areas on the map) where they often get caught unintentionally in fishing nets as “bycatch”. In some areas gill nets and trawl nets are already banned from the coastline to 4 or 7 nautical miles (nm) offshore (green areas). In other areas protection extends to only 2 nm from shore, or gillnetting is allowed to continue seasonally or year-round (purple areas). 

Map of proposed MPAs for New Zealand DolphinThe existing protection measures are a step in the right direction. However, they are not enough to stem population decline, let alone ensure recovery. That the species is fragmented into four separate populations dramatically increases the risk of extinction. For example, the North Island population (sometimes called Maui’s dolphin) has declined to fewer than 100 individuals and its long-term survival is unlikely unless protection is provided in the harbours and in the southern part of its range, as well as for the key corridor across Cook Strait between North and South islands linking the various populations. Improved protection for the north and west coasts of the South Island would also reduce fragmentation. Continued bycatch in these areas reduces the potential for dolphin movement between populations.

WDC proposes one coherent package of protection measures that matches the distribution of the dolphins and includes the areas of greatest threat. Effective protection could be provided by banning gill nets and trawl nets in the areas shown in red on the map. This would reduce population fragmentation and allow population recovery throughout the range of the species. This recommended change in the fishing regulations could be part of a declaration to make the green, red and purple areas into the New Zealand Dolphin Sanctuary  — a chance to celebrate these unique dolphins and award them their due place in the sea.