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Coronavirus and New Zealand dolphins: many questions, few answers

Like people over the world, New Zealanders have recently been faced with a lot of time at home. Fortunately, humans are remarkably resourceful and we have come up with a variety of ways to amuse, distract and entertain ourselves during these difficult times.

As well as being strange and difficult, these are also very sad times. But amid the human suffering, there is an air of hope as we witness discernible changes in the environment, from just a few weeks of slowing down of human activities.

The key questions are, how might this pandemic change human behaviour in the long-term? Will this make us rethink our relationship with nature – even just a little?

If you are able to make a donation, it would mean the world for these beautiful dolphins.

The air over Banks Peninsula, in the South Island of New Zealand, is crystal clear.  The light in this region is always remarkable, but there’s a new clarity here, apparently as the result of the hiatus in all but essential industry and travel. I wonder too about more subtle changes and whether they are being noticed yet in our oceans. What does the lockdown mean for the coastal dolphins, with fewer recreational vessels in the water and reduced fishing in some areas as a result of physical distancing restrictions?

How might the pandemic influence our efforts to protect Hector’s and Māui dolphins? Faced with such a multifaceted crisis, with human health, economic and social dimensions, what does this mean for conservation decision-making by government? These little dolphins, endemic to New Zealand, are facing extinction because they are dying in fishing nets at an unsustainable rate.  With your support, we’ve been campaigning hard to persuade the government to remove the dangerous nets from coastal waters where the dolphins live and transition to safe fishing methods in these inshore areas. We were expecting a decision from the New Zealand government at the end of last year about their conservation plan for these dolphins, known as the ‘Hector’s and Māui Threat Management Plan’. This has been delayed - again – and while this is no time to grumble, we have been assured that this will be a priority conservation decision when some semblance of normality returns.

A group of New Zealand dolphins leaping
A group of Hector's dolphins leaping. © Rob Pine

All over the world people have been reconsidering their personal priorities. A common theme seems to be a reaffirmation of the importance of nature in our lives. Talking about the call to ban wet markets, the UN chief of biodiversity noted that "If we don't take care of nature, it will take care of us". As well as the pandemic highlighting the important relationship between wildlife and human health, this slowing down of the human race has also allowed some healthy, deeper reconnection with wildlife and the environment. We hope the government is sensitive to this subtle, but important shift, when it comes to reconsidering the Threat Management Plan for the dolphins.

Right now, like many governments, New Zealand has a lot on its plate. Before the pandemic, tourism was New Zealand’s largest export industry, with 229,566 people directly and another 163,713 indirectly employed in tourism in New Zealand. That’s 14.4% of the total number of people employed in New Zealand and the industry is estimated to generate over NZ$40 billion per year. Eco-tourism is an important part of New Zealand’s appeal. As a result of border and flight restrictions, predictions are that there will be massive losses to tourism over the coming 12 to 18 months. What will this pandemic mean longer-term as the government will need to support many struggling industries?

There remain a lot of questions and these issues are difficult (‘wicked’ even) to predict. Undoubtedly, reducing hardship, keeping people gainfully employed and creating jobs will be a key focus, as the acute public health crisis is brought under control and the unavoidable chronic economic issues unfold.

Two beautiful Hector's dolphins leap just off new Zealand's coast.
Two beautiful Hector's dolphins leap just off new Zealand's coast.

Fortunately, nature carries on regardless of these very real human struggles and the coastal dolphins of New Zealand are blissfully unaware that policy decisions around their future might have become even more complex.

Amid all the chaos and uncertainty, one single lesson from this pandemic keeps me optimistic: when sufficiently galvanised to do so, the human race can make remarkable changes overnight.

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