They are one of those quintessential creatures that people just love, aren’t they. Dolphins fill crappy children’s movies, decorate our toilet paper, and are used by the New Zealand tourism industry to attract tourists who pay up to $200 for a chance to dive into our icy waters and hopefully swim with one. Everyone knows a mad keen horse fanatic. Well, the dolphin fans come a close second in levels of fervour. Yet despite their undeniable cute factor, dolphins have never really had the hypnotic effect on me that they seem to have on so many.
So I set out to discover what it is that makes the dolphin such a well-loved mammal,
and what is happening to New Zealand’s unique, and endangered, cetaceans.
Maui had a dolphin …New Zealand is home to the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, and it turns out we’re not the best protectors of these little guys. While New Zealanders often trumpet our proud anti-whaling stance, the plight of the 55 remaining Maui’s dolphins is quietly going under the radar. It seems a tad hypocritical that NZ calls so loudly for the protection of Antarctic whales when we are doing such a poor job of protecting a critically endangered species at home. However, you might cynically ask what the point is in trying to save the species if there are so few left. What can possibly be done now to save the species? Well, quite a lot, it turns out – and it’s not just conservation workers saying so.
The Maui’s Dolphin is the world’s smallest dolphin, and is only found on the West Coast of the North Island. The dolphin inhabits a very specific part of the coast, and a Department of Conservation (DOC)-funded study conducted earlier this year concluded that the depletion of the Maui population is largely due to the presence of gill-netters in the same area. The recognition of the threat created by nets has resulted in an extension of the area in which nets are banned along the Taranaki Coast.
However, the Taranaki fishery workforce is challenging the findings of the study and the subsequent ruling. Keith Mawson, spokesperson for the Taranaki fishers, suggests that there has been only one fishing-related dolphin death in the region in the last 20-years, and that as a result New Zealand must consider whether “this remote threat is enough to shut an entire fishery down, causing the loss of 50 jobs.”
Like a Panda, but wetI asked environmental campaigner Pete Bethune why the plight of the dolphin is so important. Bethune compared the dolphin to another cute creature that, much like whales, New Zealand is quick to want to protect. “The Maui’s Dolphin is New Zealand's panda. We cannot allow it to go extinct. But we need a government with some backbone to act now.” And here lies the crux of the issue: there is an ongoing battle about what can be done to boost dolphin numbers, between government policy-makers, and the wishes of animal rights activists, DOC workers, and marine biologists.
In 2007 a petition was delivered to Parliament with the signatures of more than 32,000 New Zealanders, in which the government was called upon to protect the dolphins through their current and historic range. While asking for the guaranteed protection of a species may seem like a vague and optimistic request, the campaigners, and DOC have suggested several specific ways in which it is believed the dolphins can be saved.
Firstly, there is the obvious desire to regulate the ways in which fishing on the coast occurs so there is no dolphin by-catch. There is also a call for increased research into, and management of, other possible threats to the species, and lastly a need for further research into the dolphins and their environment. However, the wishes of Maui campaigners are largely in opposition to those held by Taranaki fishers, who say that the extension of the no-net area will destroy the local fishing industry.
Cash MoniesThis is an important question to consider. In a time where all sectors are financially stretched and the implementation of new government policies is resulting in a social shake up, is the government right to destroy fishing jobs to protect the endangered Maui’s species? Yes, I am aware that this is heading dangerously down the “are humans and animals equal” track, but just ponder it. Mawson suggests that not only will the government’s new net policy cause job losses, but it will fail to increase Dolphin numbers. He points to factors such as pollution, disease, and predators as other threats that the net ban fails to address. "It will be the final nail in the coffin of the local industry and Port Taranaki as a fishing port. It's a case of mutually assured extinction, out of which no one will be winners – not the dolphins, and not the fishermen."
However, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) argues that an extension of the set net ban is the only way that the dolphin can be saved. Bethune also shares this sentiment, and points to the Black Robin as an example of a species that was saved when it was right on the brink of extinction. “The Black Robin was down to a single female. There are now 250 of them. If we can save a single bird we can save the Maui.”
While the Black Robin is a good example of conservation at its best, there are vast differences between the circumstances surrounding the revival of the Robin and the obstacles to saving the Maui’s dolphin. The Robin could be transported to a safer environment in which it was essentially removed from many of the threats it faced. Birds are also considerably easier to control and monitor than dolphins, which of course are much larger. And perhaps most importantly, the survival of the Black Robin was never at odds with the livelihoods of people who shared their environment.
Extinction face offUniversity of Otago Associate Professor of Zoology, Elisabeth Slooten, suggests that the banning of gillnets will also be beneficial for the fishing industry. “If these fishermen want their children and grandchildren to have a future in the fishing industry they need to stop using these nets today. This would be far better for the long term future and long a term benefit for the fishery.” Associate Professor Slooten, who has carried out several surveys of the Maui’s dolphin, told me of a recent study in which she was able to track the movements of the dolphin into harbours on the West Coast of the North Island. Slooten describes these harbours, which are not yet net free, as “death traps” for the dolphin. “This means Maui’s dolphins are literally staring extinction in the face. I sometimes wonder what it is about the words ‘critically endangered’ that the government officials don’t understand. They don’t seem to know that this is the last stop before extinct.”
Keith Mawson also argues that the government is out of touch with the issue, suggesting that the government has done very little research into the species. Mawson told me, “The dolphin population will not survive if people only focus on the fishing industry, and think that restrictions to fishing will be the silver bullet for the survival of this dolphin.” Mawson suggests not only that set net fishing is not to blame for the dwindling population, but also that the claim that the dolphin only exists on the Taranaki Coast is simply not true. “The furthest south that a Maui dolphin has been found is Raglan, which is well north of New Plymouth. We do not believe, and there is no proof, that Maui’s dolphin are present in Taranaki waters. Therefore, we do not pose a threat to the Maui’s dolphin population.” Assoc Professor Slooten calls this claim “complete nonsense”. She explains, “if any of these fishermen have been working in Taranaki for more than a few years, they will remember the days when it was common to see Maui's dolphins in Taranaki waters.”
While the differing perspectives of those involved reveal the complexity of the issue, what is certain is that the Maui’s dolphin is on the verge of extinction, whether as a result of fishing nets or other causes. All parties involved agree that inaction is simply not a viable option if the species is to be saved. So whether you are firmly on the side of the environmentalists, or feel the financial pains of the fishing industry and the families that are fed by it, what is most important is that a debate is started. As our population continues to grow, so too will the issues caused by the commercial use of an animal’s environment for financial gain. I mean, if we are willing to get tacky dolphin tattoos and rant about documentaries like The Cove, surely it is important that we consider how we can ensure that future generations are able to have dolphins around to do the same.