Oil and gas exploration threatens world's rarest dolphin

Posted Aug 16, 2014 by Megan Hamilton
With only 55 left in the wild, the Maui's dolphin, native to New Zealand, is under siege from trawling fisheries, and now wildlife officials are worried that proposed oil and gas exploration may threaten them further.
Maui s dolphin  close to New Zealand.
Maui's dolphin, close to New Zealand.
Steve Dawson
In fact, the dolphins are so rare that they may face extinction within the next 30 years if the government of New Zealand doesn't act soon enough, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Concern for the dolphin's welfare led to the launch of The Last 55 campaign by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Maui's dolphins are right on the brink of extinction, said Chris Howe, WWF-New Zealand executive director said in a campaign brief.
"We are down to the last 55 dolphins, so we are calling on our political leaders to let them know it's time to take action to save this precious species," he said. "Maui's are the rarest marine dolphins in the world; they only exist on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. We have an obligation to do everything we can to save them."
Maui's dolphins need protection from set-netting and trawling across their full habitat, he noted in the brief.
These beautiful small dolphins are endemic to New Zealand and they are only found on west coast of the country's north island, according to the IUCN, which lists them as critically endangered.
The Maui's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) is a subspecies of Hector's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori), which is more common than the Maui's dolphin. Nevertheless, the IUCN has listed it as threatened.
Both are considered to be the rarest and the smallest dolphins in the world, the NABU International Foundation for Nature reports.
Adult Maui's dolphins weigh only 40 kg, and are only about 1.2-1.5 metres long. Females don't breed until they are between seven and nine years old, and even then they only give birth to a single calf every two to four years. Since they have a life span of only 20 years, mothers can only raise a few calves, so it's easy to see that this, in part, is why they are so endangered.
NABU reports that the maximum population growth for these dolphins is only 2 percent, and this means that a population of 100 can increase by just two individuals a year.
A special sanctuary was established for the dolphins in 2008, but conservation groups say that the New Zealand government is hastening the creature's demise by allowing oil exploration and fishing in the area, The Guardian reports.
The Guardian cited a recent report by the International Whaling Commission which notes "extreme concern" for this little dolphin. The report calls for a ban on trawling fisheries throughout its habitat. The current protection isn't enough to reverse the dolphin's decline, the report stated.
The New Zealand Greens party has also come out against the government's decision to permit oil and gas exploration across an enormous area of land and sea. Some 3,000 square kilometres of this area overlap with the dolphin sanctuary, per The Guardian.
The government should ban any oil drilling or seabed mining in the dolphin sanctuary, Gareth Hughes, a Greens MP, said.
"There are a huge number of threats, from dolphins being caught in indiscriminate fishing nets to underwater explosions from exploration that can deafen the dolphins or drive them out of the sanctuary," he said, per The Guardian. "The government has to listen to the international scientific experts and give this species a shot at survival. We need to develop alternative methods of fishing to transition industry to more sustainable methods, or we will risk our good international brand for fish."
Nick Smith, New Zealand's conservation minister, said that the government is taking care to ensure Maui's dolphin would beat predictions from some scientists who say that the species may become extinct within 20 years.
"There are some extreme green groups that are critical of the government's steps to protect the Maui's dolphin but I'm confident I'm doing everything practical to ensure their survival," he said, per The Guardian.
The government has already banned set-net fishing, Smith said, adding that this was an "overwhelming risk" to the dolphin. Oil and gas exploration had occurred off the north island for 40 years without any detrimental impact upon the species, he said.
"It would be economic lunacy to shut down the petroleum industry in that area," he said. "It would cost the economy NZ$ 1 billion a year and mean that we'd move away from natural gas to coal, which would hugely increase our greenhouse gas emissions."
It's a tense situation for both Smith and Hughes, but one thing is clear — neither questions the fact that populations of the Maui's dolphin are perilously low.
Hughes noted that New Zealand has had some success with increasing the numbers of the kakapo and said that the Greens aren't going to give up on the Maui's dolphin.
"It's not game over yet, although it's perilously close," he said.
For his part, Smith would like to see 20 years without a human-caused fatality before he would feel certain of the dolphin's survival, but he said he was confident it could remain, per The Guardian.
This reporter has spent time in the water with wild dolphins and to watch them as they dodge and play in the water, the sunlight sparkling across their backs, is an amazing experience. Hopefully one day the world will be a safer place for all wild dolphins.