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IWC to consider imminent extinction of Maui’s dolphins

International Whaling Commission to consider imminent extinction of Maui’s dolphins

New research confirms that New Zealand’s Maui’s dolphins could face extinction by 2031. In the past two years, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) had issued urgent recommendations about the need to protect the dolphins’ from fishing nets. New Zealand has failed to implement this advice. IWC scientists are scheduled to discuss the plight of the last 50 Maui’s dolphins again at their meeting in Bled, Slovakia this week.

With less than 15 breeding females, Maui’s dolphins are amongst the rarest and most endangered mammals on earth. Fishing progressively decimated numbers from around 1,800 individuals in the 1970 to just 50. With numbers this low, the death of more than one individual every 10-23 years will have devastating consequences for the entire population.

In 2012, a government appointed Panel of Experts determined that gillnets and trawling kill five Maui’s dolphins each year. Dr Liz Slooten from the University of Otago estimates that extensions to fisheries exclusion zones introduced since then reduce the level of Maui’s dolphin bycatch to 3.28 - 4.16 individuals per year - 54 times the sustainable limit.

“Conservation Minister Nick Smith acknowledges that fishing poses the greatest threat to the Maui’s dolphins”, says Thomas Tennhardt, Chief Executive of German conservation group NABU International. “Yet New Zealand is ignoring urgent calls by every conceivable international scientific body to immediately prohibit the use of gill and trawl nets in Maui’s habitat to reduce bycatch to zero.”

“Based on Dr Slooten’s data, our calculations indicate that Maui’s dolphins may become extinct as early as 2031,” explains NABU International’s Head of Endangered Species Conservations, Dr Barbara Maas. “The marginal increase in fisheries protection put in place by the New Zealand government falls significantly short of the zero tolerance approach to bycatch mortality mandated by science. It will at best delay the dolphins’ demise by 4-18 years.”

“Data on the offshore distribution of Maui’s dolphins support a water depth of 100 metre as an effective offshore boundary for their protection (the approximate equivalent of at least 12 nautical miles offshore). If applied this could allow Maui’s dolphin to recover to a less threatened status within 126 years, provided other threats such as seismic testing, fossil fuel extraction and large scale iron ore sand mining are called off.”

“Current protection measures are an arbitrary mix of inconsistent and biologically meaningless fisheries exclusion zones”, adds Dr Maas. “They extend from zero to two, four and seven nautical miles offshore and reflect fishing interests rather than match Maui’s dolphin distribution.”

“As a scientist, this process has been deeply frustrating”, says Dr. Slooten. “The data could not be any clearer. We know that dolphin populations this small can disappear very quickly. The Baiji or Chinese river dolphin was recently declared extinct. About 40 Baiji survived in 1998, but despite an extensive survey not a single individual could be found by 2006. It is inconceivable that Maui’s dolphins should follow suit.”


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