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New research may help protect, save Maui & Hector's dolphins

For immediate release, 2 March 2017

Pioneering new research may help protect, save Maui & Hector’s dolphins

A pioneering scientific study currently underway has proven new thermal detection technology could be used to help protect and save Maui and Hector’s dolphins. Initial survey results suggest the technology and technique could be deployed to provide both direct and indirect protection to the critically endangered Maui dolphin and endangered Hector’s dolphin.

The study, which tested the use of thermal imaging cameras to identify the dolphins in the water, is being led by Martin Stanley of Ocean Life Survey, in cooperation with Maui and Hectors Dolphin Defenders NZ Inc, with funding from the Waitakere Ranges Local Board and Pub Charity, amongst others (1).

Stanley said the Maui and Hector’s have a distinctive rounded dorsal fin, colloquially known as the “Mickey Mouse” ear, which is quite different to the dorsal fins of other dolphin species in New Zealand waters.

“The thermal cameras can clearly detect Hector’s and Maui’s classic rounded dorsal fin. It stands out really well in the images. This gives us the key identifying feature, the fingerprint, that clearly distinguishes these dolphins from other dolphin species found in New Zealand waters.”

Mr Stanley said thermal cameras could be deployed on board commercial fishing vessels operating outside current Maui and Hector’s dolphin protection zones, where they could improve the vessels’ ability to detect the dolphins, and avoid by-catch deaths. They could also be used on board other marine industrial vessels to reduce disturbance risk.

“The importance of this technology is that it not only allows dolphin detection during the day, it also works at night when nobody can normally see them,” said Mr Stanley.

He said the technology could also be used to improve scientific understanding of Maui and Hector’s dolphins.
“We’re hoping this technology can help increase scientists’ understanding of the nocturnal behaviour of dolphin species – this could lead to improved conservation management and protection of New Zealand’s most endangered dolphin.”

The first part of the study focussed on identifying the dolphins in cooler ocean water conditions in October and November 2016, in both the North and South Island. The second stage was successfully conducted in February 2017 in the North Island, and detected the animals in their warmest water conditions, which proved the technology could be used year-round.

Maui & Hector’s Dolphin Defenders Chair Christine Rose says her group was happy to see such innovative research proceed with positive results:

“We need to expand our range of tools to better understand, and offer improved protection for Maui and Hector’s dolphins, given the threats they face. This new research can hopefully lead to increased knowledge about the dolphin’s range, and better safety within it.”

Waitakere Ranges Local Board Chair Greg Presland added:
“Protecting and preserving Maui's dolphin is one of the Board's priorities for this term and I am pleased that this research will help reduce the possibility of any of the few remaining Maui dolphins being by-catch of the fishing industry."

The study follows previous research conducted by Stanley in the Hauraki Gulf in 2014, which proved it was possible to detect and identify whales and dolphins from the heat of their bodies, in real time, both day and night, from a boat using thermal imaging technology. It concluded an adapted system could potentially help protect marine mammal species from harm.

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