There may be no better example of an animal critically endangered by human activity than the Maui Dolphin. The marine mammal is currently listed as such by the IUCN Red List due to the most recent reports estimating their population to have fallen to a mere 43 individuals across their entire range (WWF).
The population was not always this small. In 2010, An independent conservation group tracked 59 individuals in their natural habitat (Biggs). In 2013, the International Whaling Commission conducted a study which claimed that by 2019, there would likely be only 10 adult females left across the entire population.
The report went on to detail how this would lead to the species inevitable extinction within 20 years. Before this, the population is difficult to track specifically as it was only distinguished from the Hector Dolphin by Dr. Alan Baker in 2002 (WWF).
Part of the reason for the initial confusion was the two relative species’ overlapping distribution. Both are found off the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand.
The Maui dolphin in particular is most commonly found in the harbors and estuaries no further than five miles off the shoreline (WWF).
This coastal environment is home to a marine sanctuary which extends over 2,164 kilometers of coastline.
Transition. The greatest threat to the Maui Dolphin is fishing via gillnets. This type of fishing involves leaving fine netting in intertidal areas where fish frequent. As the dolphins move about their coastal habitat, they become entangled in the nets and die. The dolphins are also not safe further out to sea.
The same offshore environment the dolphins inhabit is popular with trawling fishing, in which boats pull a net behind them to trap fish that pass beneath the boat. The dolphins are vulnerable not only to getting trapped in the nets, but also to being struck by the fishing boats when they rise for oxygen. In the recent past, the New Zealand government had begun opening sections of the Maui Dolphins habitat for offshore oil drilling(WWF). This poses a new threat to the future population as the county took action to expand its energy sector.
Despite these threats, there are laws in place to protect the Maui Dolphin. In 2014, the world Wildlife Fund in New Zealand led a campaign entitled “The Last 55”, so named after the species dwindling population (WWF). This led to international recognition and the creation of West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary which stretches over much of the Maui Dolphin’s range (Department of Conservation). The use of trawl and gillnets is prohibited across the coast from Oakura Beach in the South to Maunganui Bluff further in the North. This all equates to 2,164 kilometers of protected coastline. More recently, in 2018 the New Zealand government announced it will no longer grant offshore drilling permits as part of an effort to become carbon neutral.
While these conservation efforts are a step in the right direction, many groups argue they do not do enough to protect the Maui Dolphin’s re-proliferation (Briggs). The sanctuary does not account for the full range of the Maui Dolphin, and individuals continue to be killed by direct human activity in their natural habitat. Furthermore, while the sanctuary prohibits most fishing and mining operations within its area it does not explicitly place any restrictions pertaining to offshore oil drilling. The New Zealand government had begun opening not only sections of the dolphins’ natural habitat for drilling, but also the waters within the marine mammal sanctuary (WWF). While the government will not grant any new offshore drilling permits, there are still 22 active permit holders with several drilling platforms still operation within the dolphins’ habitat (Roy). If the government wishes to ensure the survival of the Maui Dolphin they must put in place further protections for their marine habitats. Perhaps the best course of action would be to prohibit fishing across the entirety of the Maui Dolphin’s range rather than only a section of it. This would reduce the number of accidental deaths due to drowning and boat impacts. Furthermore, the government should halt the extraction of oil within the Maui Dolphins natural habitat and seek the immediate and safe dismantling of the offshore platforms. While this conservation measure is radical and would present an economic loss, it would go a long way to ensure the survival of a unique and critically endangered species.