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Hector's dolphin

The New Zealand government is attempting to use a parasite spread by cats as an excuse to deflect from its failure to protect two of the most threatened native dolphin species in the country.

Māui and Hector’s dolphins have declined dramatically due to net fishing over the last 50 years. There are fewer than 60 Māui left and Hector’s, once the most common in New Zealand, have declined by 80%. The Government’s long-awaited options for the Threat Management Plan (TMP) for Māui and Hector’s dolphins released last week, showed some positive suggestions for protecting the Māui but utterly failed Hector’s dolphins around the South Island, as well as the important historical habitat between the two subspecies.

“It’s absolutely shocking that not even one of the options offers full protection from net fishing. This is a step backwards and is so disappointing,” says Mike Bossley, Research Fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).

In an apparent attempt to displace attention from fisheries bycatch the government has promoted Toxoplasmosis, a parasite spread by cats, as the main cause of dolphin death. However, the International Whaling Commission and Independent Expert Panel expressed serious concern about the weight being given to the parasite as the main cause of death.

Gemma McGrath, NZ dolphin consultant for WDC supports this concern, “Toxoplasmosis should definitely not take the focus off fishing, which is, without doubt, the primary cause for a decline in the species. If anything, the possible risk of toxoplasmosis provides even more urgency to remove the risks we have control over – like net fishing, marine mining and invasive sound.”

Many dolphin hapu (subpopulations) have been reduced to less than 10% of their original abundance. For the species to fully recover from the impact of fishing, the dolphins need protection from net fishing throughout their entire habitat, which is out to the 100-metre depth contour.

The species lives locally, and many dolphin subpopulations around the South Island are just as critically endangered as Māui. Many of these local populations number less than 50 individuals. The only area where dolphins are increasing is in the Banks Peninsula dolphin sanctuary. In all other areas, dolphins are still declining.

Hector’s dolphins potentially offer a genetic lifeline to Māui. There are at least three Hector’s living with Māui, who most likely travelled up from the top of the South Island.

Mike Bossley added: “It’s great there’s some protection offered at top of the South and along the Kapiti Coast, but there needs to be protected across Taranaki Bight and Cook Strait too. Dolphins from the top of the South are just as likely to travel up to Māui across the Bight as they are close to the Kapiti Coast.

Not protecting all of this vital corridor is a conservation failure, as is the lack of full protection around the top of the South and most of the South Island.”

There is still so much overlap of dolphin habitat with net fishing. The TMP does not address the simple fact that dolphins don’t do fences within the inshore environment. So, if their entire habitat isn’t protected they can still get caught in nets. This TMP has failed Hector’s dolphins especially, so an abundance of quality public submissions will be very important for them.

In order for Māui and Hector’s dolphins to thrive again, they need full protection, out to the 100-metre depth contour in all the waters where they swim and used to swim.

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