The World’s Smallest and Rarest Dolphin Is Disappearing

Scientists are calling on New Zealand to impose restrictions on fishing and oil exploration to save the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin from extinction.

Maui's Dolphin. (Photo: WWF New Zealand/Facebook)

May 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

There are fewer than 50 Maui’s dolphins—the smallest dolphins in the world—left on the planet, and they could be extinct in 15 years.

That prediction comes from new research out of the Germany-based Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, which calculated that between 43 and 47 of the critically endangered animals are left in the wild. That’s a drop of roughly 97 percent of the population since 1970, and the species faces imminent extinction unless restrictions on fishing practices and oil exploration are enacted.

Maui’s dolphins are a subspecies of Hector’s dolphins and are only found on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The tiny dolphins typically measure about four feet long as adults, about the same size as the vaquita—the world’s smallest porpoise, which lives in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

Like the Maui’s dolphins, the 97 surviving vaquita porpoises face intense pressure from fishing. But unlike its New Zealand counterparts, vaquitas are getting some help from the Mexican government, while Maui’s dolphins are being left to defend themselves, conservationists say.

Barbara Maas, lead researcher at NABU, is attending the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in San Diego to present the new findings about the world’s tiniest dolphins to the world’s cetacean monitoring board.

While the commission lacks jurisdiction over the hunting of species such as dolphins, Maas said the scientific committee at the IWC has already called on New Zealand to preserve the Maui’s dolphins through habitat protection and a ban on trawling and gillnets. She said the new research should put more pressure on the country to listen to those calls.

The problem is the New Zealand government’s priorities, said Greenpeace’s senior oceans campaigner Karli Thomas.

“This supposedly ‘clean, green’ country is right now overseeing the extinction of the world’s rarest and smallest dolphin by setting lax laws around destructive fishing methods and pursuing an outdated fossil fuel agenda,” Thomas said.

While the government has designated a marine sanctuary protecting some of the dolphin’s habitat, conservation groups like Greenpeace and NABU have contended the preserve still needs to be greatly expanded and stronger restrictions on oil exploration must be implemented.

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New Zealand should look to how Mexico has been handling the vaquita, said Miguel Soto Treviño, communications coordinator for Greenpeace Mexico.

In March, Mexico approved a two-year ban on nylon gillnets—fishing equipment that accidentally traps and kills vaquitas—across the marine mammal’s 5,000-square-mile range.

“We know that it is impossible to save the species with a two-year ban; it requires at least 20 years, but we see this measure as a first step in the right direction,” Treviño said. “With this two-year ban, there is a chance to work with local fishermen using and developing other types of nets.”

In New Zealand, Maui’s dolphins have been sighted 100 miles south of their preserve.

At last year’s IWC meeting, the international scientists' committee said New Zealand’s protections fell short of those needed to save the species, and stated “that rather than seeking further scientific evidence, it is of highest priority to take immediate management actions that will eliminate bycatch of Maui’s dolphins.”

A spokesperson for the New Zealand minister for conservation told BBC News that no comment would be made until after IWC’s scientific committee reported its findings and recommendations from the San Diego meeting, which should be released in June.

“There is no doubt what action is needed to give these tiny dolphins a fighting chance of survival, but unless the government fully protects them throughout their habitat, they are doomed,” Thomas said.

So, Why Should You Care?

For New Zealand’s Maui’s dolphins, it’s no longer a matter of if, but when: The smallest species of dolphins will go extinct if nothing is done to help them. So far, more than 70,000 New Zealanders have called on the government to enforce stronger conservation measures to protect the dolphin, and petitions from Greenpeace and NABU International calling for the global community to voice its concerns have collected more than 90,000 signatures.