Marine scientists have urged New Zealand to immediately ban fishing in waters inhabited by the world’s rarest dolphin, saying that losing even one of the creatures will threaten the species’ existence.
The Maui’s dolphin is one of the world’s smallest, with a maximum length of 1.7 metres (5.5 foot), prompting conservationists to call it “the hobbit of the sea”.
Found only in shallow waters off the North Island’s west coast, it is listed as critically endangered with just 55 adults remaining amid fears of extinction by 2030 unless urgent action is taken.
The International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) scientific committee said it was extremely concerned about the dolphin’s plight, adding: “The human-caused death of even one dolphin in such a small population would increase the extinction risk for this subspecies.”
While the New Zealand government has previously said it would consider both the risks facing the dolphins and the impact on the local fishing industry before implementing a management plan, the IWC said urgent action was needed.
The call for action was contained in a report published over the weekend which revealed for the first time the recommendations of the IWC’s annual meeting held in South Korea last month.
Barbara Maas, an endangered species specialist at Germany-based conservation group NABU who attended the meeting, said there could be no more stalling if New Zealand wanted to save the dolphin.
She told AFP on Monday that the country was willing to spend tens of millions of dollars promoting itself as the home of “Middle Earth” and “clean and green” but needed to back up the marketing with action or risk tarnishing its image.
The local fishing industry disputes allegations it is to blame for the dolphin’s demise, saying it has become a scapegoat while other explanations such as the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis are ignored.
Maas said the issue boiled down to money, with the fishing industry keen to continue and the government reluctant to pay compensation if it was forced to close.
No one from the government was immediately available to comment on the IWC report.