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Unique New Zealand dolphin on edge of extinction

4 October 1999

Unique New Zealand dolphin on edge of extinction

The North Island Hector's dolphin has dropped to such low numbers that scientists expect it will soon be extinct, the Green Party revealed today.

Party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons issued details of the plight of the dolphin, which is the only species of dolphin unique to New Zealand, as part of the launch today of the party's conservation policy.

An unpublished report from scientists at Auckland University (Pichler and Baker, 1999) says the North Island dolphins have gone from at least three lineages to one in the last twenty years, meaning that all the dolphins are individually related. The report, currently being peer reviewed by the Royal Society, says "given its small size, reproductive isolation and reduced genetic diversity, this population is likely to become extinct."

"There are probably less than one hundred of these dolphins left, on the west coast between Taranaki and Northland," Ms Fitzsimons said from Auckland as she launched the party's conservation policy today, "but we have neglected them so long that we really don't know."

Hector's dolphin is considered the world's rarest marine dolphin.

The new research provides the first genetic evidence that the North Island dolphins are a separate subspecies. The South Island Hector's dolphin, numbering 3-4000, is also threatened. Hector's dolphin is highly territorial, and the two subspecies do not interact.

The decline in Hector's dolphin is attributed to accidental deaths in gillnets set by commercial and amateur fishers. Research in the mid 1980s found that 230 Hector's dolphins were reported killed between 1984 and 1988 alone. However the paper says the evidence "suggests a higher rate of gillnet entanglement than has been reported by the fishing industry".

"The North Island Hector's dolphin population is so low that the scientists are starting to talk about translocating South Island dolphins to the North Island," Ms Fitzsimons said. "But that has to be a last resort. It risks losing the genetic traits that make the North Island dolphins unique."

Another recent paper based on separate research by two scientists from Otago University and two from California describes the North Island subspecies as "highly imperiled" and concludes "it is clear that this population is at highest risk and urgently needs further assessment". The paper says low population and vulnerability to fishing "makes the North Island population a top priority for conservation efforts". More

"We desperately need more research to tell us exactly where the North Island dolphins are, how many there are and what's killing them," Ms Fitzsimons said. "In the meantime, we need a Hector's dolphin sanctuary controlling gillnetting and trawling from Kawhia to the mouth of the Kaipara Harbour. Because Hector's dolphin are an inshore species the sanctuary would only need to extend to a depth of 100 metres.

"Our policy aims to reduce the killing of marine mammals close to zero by 2003. The North Island Hector's dolphin will be our top priority. If we don't take action now, we condemn the North Island Hector's dolphin to extinction."

Until now attention has been focused on the main population of Hector's dolphin, on the east coast of the South Island. In 1988 a sanctuary was created in part of the dolphin's range around Banks Peninsula, and this year commercial gillnet fishers outside the sanctuary voluntarily decided to attach "pingers" to their nets to scare dolphins away.

"It's great that the fishers are taking the initiative and using pingers," Ms Fitzsimons said. "But that doesn't mean the problem has been solved. The researchers found that this population has declined too, so we need independent monitoring to ensure that the sanctuary and pingers are working."

She said she was worried that the management plan for Hector's dolphin was being written by a representative of the fishing industry, part of a recent trend to give the fishing industry more control over marine management.

"It's important that any controls on fishing are workable and minimise adverse effects on the industry and recreational fishers. But at the end of the day the management plan has to be about protecting the dolphins, not maximising fish catches."

She was also concerned that scientists who have advocated for dolphin protection have found it difficult to get research contracts. "I get the feeling there are people who would rather not know about the plight of Hector's dolphin, particularly in the North Island."

Ms Fitzsimons said the Hector's dolphin was an example for how the Conservation Department didn't have the funds to do its job. "The little money DoC has for the Hector's dolphin has gone to sustaining the South Island subspecies. The North Island researchers have been able to continue only thanks to private organisations like the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and have even been forced to fund some research out of their own pockets."

Because they tend to live in shallow water around river mouths, Hector's dolphin are also highly susceptible to contamination from land based pollution. "Hector's dolphins are an example of the threat to our wildlife as well as ourselves from a toxic economy," Ms Fitzsimons said.

The conservation policy is being supplied this morning to the press gallery. For extra faxed or emailed copies, please ring Paul Bensemann, press secretary 04 4706679 or 021 214 2665. Ms Fitzsimons is in Auckland today and available for interviews on her cellphone from 7.30am to 9.30am and then from 10.30am onwards. If non-contactable on cellphone 025 586068 please try Auckland Green Party office at 09 3361455, or Rod Donald MP 025 507183.

Co-Leaders Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, along with leading conservation photographer and Green list candidate Craig Potton, will launch the party's flagship policy to supporters, environmentalists and the public during a visual presentation by Mr Potton at Unitech's Blue Lecture Theatre, Auckland, (entry from Gate 3, Carrington Rd), at 8pm today.

ENDS


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