Maui's Dolphin: Can New Zealand Scientists Save Earth’s Rarest Dolphin Subspecies? [REPORT]

By Philip Ross on July 2, 2013 2:00 PM EDT

maui-dolphin
Maui’s dolphin, a small subspecies of dolphin that measures just 5.5 feet-long, is also earth’s rarest dolphin subspecies. Scientists now urge the New Zealand government to take immediate action to protect the species. (Photo: Facebook / Linda Robinson)

Maui's dolphin, one of the world's smallest species of dolphin, is also the planet's rarest. Only 55 Maui's dolphins still exist in the wild. The threatened marine mammal, which looks something like a pint-sized version of the killer whale, is found only in the shallow waters along the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. Because of intrusive and deadly fishing practices, the dolphin is critically endangered. Scientists and environmental activists are urging the New Zealand government to protect its Maui's dolphin, dubbed the "hobbit of the sea," before it's too late.

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Australia Network News reports that conservationists, who believe the Maui's dolphin could be extinct by 2030, are calling for fishing to be banned in the waters where the dolphins live. Scientists say that the death of just one dolphin would have dire consequences on the floundering dolphin population because of how few of them are left.   

While the New Zealand government has previously agreed to take steps towards saving the Maui's dolphin, they've mostly been blowing smoke. National Geographic reported a few years ago that set nets, used by recreational fishers near New Zealand's coastline, were responsible for a number of the dolphins' deaths. From National Geographic:

The deaths showed that the fishing industry cannot be trusted to follow the voluntary code of practice that currently protects the species, he said. The government-imposed code was set up to minimize accidental capture of dolphins during trawl fishing.

But it wasn't enough. "All fishing with set nets and trawl nets should be banned throughout the range of Hector's and Maui's dolphins," Chris Howe, the executive director of the World Wildlife Fund's New Zealand branch, told AP back in 2008.

Today, little has changed, and conservationists' pleas to protect the critically endangered Maui's dolphin are getting louder.

"Rather than seeking further scientific evidence, the priority should be given to immediate management actions that will lead to the elimination of by catch of Maui's dolphins," the International Whaling Commission said in a statement. 

The first dolphin driven to extinction by human activity was the Yangtze River dolphin in China back in 2007. If the New Zealand government doesn't enact strict dolphin protection codes fast, the Maui's dolphin could be next. 

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