On the 15th of April this year, a marine reserve was approved within Akaroa harbor on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. This new policy will bear particular significance to New Zealand’s endemic dolphin species; the Hector’s dolphin. These dolphins are the world’s smallest dolphins. They are the only dolphins to possess well-rounded black dorsal fins, which appear like Mickey Mouse ears protruding from the waves. Hector’s dolphins are relatively abundant around the Akaroa region. However, they are classified as endangered with a dwindling population of approximately 7 200. Thirty years ago their numbers stood at approximately 26 000. Although the reserve in Akaroa is good news for the dolphins, scientific studies have concluded that more must be done to ensure their survival.
A team of scientists from the University of Otago conducted studies on the dolphins’ distribution and population in 2011. They found that the dolphins inhabit the same coastal waters year round and rarely venture into water over 60 meters in depth. The research also found that current levels of protection are not enough to stabilize their population and ensure their future. New Zealand’s boundaries on commercial gill netting protect 60% or less of the dolphins habitat range for only three months of the year, which is not enough.
Gillnet fishing is a major threat to Hector’s Dolphins. They are vulnerable to these nets that fishermen spread across the ocean floor. Hector’s dolphins swim into the nets, which are undetectable to them by their sonar, become entangled and slowly drown. The scientists recommended that a year round restriction on gillnetting out to 6nmi (nautical miles) offshore would reduce dolphin bycatch deaths to near zero.
Fisheries policy urgently needs to change in order to protect the Hector’s Dolphins. Otherwise their numbers may decline to the critically low levels of their cousins the Maui dolphins. There are only an estimated 50 to 100 Maui dolphins living and this species is on the brink of extinction.
Many people and organizations are lobbying campaigns to save the Hector’s dolphin. The world Champion free diver from New Zealand William Trubridge spearheads one of the appeals to protect them. He urges people to sign petitions to pressure the New Zealand government into action. He also recommends boycotting fish caught by trawler and drift nets in New Zealand’s coastal waters. You can also get involved at WWF Stop their extinction campaign. If no changes occur and current trends continue, these dolphins will cease to exist. Then the stories of miniature dolphins with ‘Mickey Mouse’ fins, which sound like fiction, will be fiction.