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There’s a simple way to save the Māui dolphin – and the government is ignoring it

If Māui dolphins are a Threatened Species priority, why won’t the government act to stop their extinction, asks the WWF New Zealand’s David Tong.

Kiwi, kakapo, Māui dolphins and white sharks all feature on a list of 150 priority species in a new draft Threatened Species Strategy that Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry launched earlier this month. The draft strategy lists Māui dolphins as “nationally critical” and says they’re “in urgent need”. That makes total sense: the Department of Conservation last year estimated that only 63 adult Māui dolphins survived.

There were more words in that last paragraph than there are Māui dolphins alive.

A Māui dolphin. Photo: Kirsty Russell

But if Māui dolphins are a priority, why is the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, refusing to take action to stop their extinction? Fishing through conventional trawling and set netting (also called gillnetting) is to blame for 95% of the Māui dolphin deaths involving human activity. So why won’t the Minister support a switch to fishing that’s safe for dolphins, removing the threat from the entire Māui dolphin habitat?

Current fishing restrictions cover less than one third of Māui dolphins’ habitat. Set nets are restricted in less than 30% of the habitat, and our government has protected under 10% of the habitat from both set netting and conventional trawling. Last year, the International Whaling Commission’s Small Cetaceans Subcommittee urged our government to take more action – including by closing the whole habitat to these kinds of fishing.

A new Business and Economic Research Limited (BERL) report released last month estimates that supporting fishing people and communities to switch to dolphin-safe fishing in the Māui dolphin habitat could cost government as little as $26 million. $26 million is less than what the government spent on the flag referendum. It’s less than three years of ministerial travel expenses. It’s only 0.03% of the government’s annual budget, and less than 1% of the government’s projected surplus this year.

WWF New Zealand billboard, Wellington

Recent polling shows that Nathan Guy is out of step with public opinion on protecting the critically endangered Māui dolphin – 75% of New Zealanders think the government should financially assist fishing people and communities to switch to dolphin-safe fishing methods in Māui dolphin habitat. Moana and Sanford, two major fishing companies, also support removing the fishing threat from the entire Māui dolphin habitat.

Aotearoa’s unique Māui dolphins can be saved from extinction if our government supports affected people and communities to move to dolphin-friendly methods of fishing and extends the ban on set netting and conventional trawling to cover their whole known habitat. This requires a genuine sanctuary from Maunganui Bluff to the Whanganui River mouth, including harbours, out to 100 metres deep. Protecting 30% of their habitat just won’t cut it.

Just one day after launching the draft strategy, our government announced $178 million of new money for upgrading and developing tourist facilities. Just one sixth of that could save Māui dolphins from extinction. So what’s stopping Nathan Guy from saving the Māui dolphin?


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