Hector’s & Maui’s dolphins

The Minister of Conservation has recently announced a new proposal to extend the protection around Taranaki for Maui’s dolphins.

This latest announcement is despite a lengthy consultation period for the Threat Management Plan, which received one of the largest volumes of submissions ever.

Over 70,000 submissions were made in support of stronger science-based protection measures for the Maui’s dolphins.

We are still waiting on the Government to make its announcement over the Threat Management Plan review, but in the interim the Conservation Minister is now seeking public opinion on a proposed variation to the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

This current proposal is simply inadequate. It fails to fully protect all areas that Maui’s dolphins are found.

Maui’s dolphins are the rarest in the world and have the highest threat classification status in NZ and are on the brink of extinction. It was estimated back in 2010-11 that only 55 dolphins over the age of one were alive.

Since then, we know of at least one confirmed Maui’s death, and another caught as bycatch around Taranaki reported as either a Maui’s or Hector’s dolphin. Scientists estimate that Maui’s dolphins can only survive one human related death every 10 to 23 years. Both the International Whaling Commission and the World Conservation Congress have urged the New Zealand Government to take immediate measures to protect Maui's dolphin.

The measures in place so far, and those being proposal falls far short of these expert recommendations.

New Zealand is home to the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphins – the Hector’s dolphin. Hector’s dolphins in the North Island have separated from those in the South Island to become genetically distinct over time. Dolphins found off the North Island coast are recognised as a sub-species, the Maui’s dolphin.

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In the 1970s there were between 21,000 and 29,000 Hector’s dolphins found around most of our coastline. Today, fewer than 7000 are scattered around our coastal waters.

Both Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins are listed on the IUCN’s (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of threatened species.

 Maui’s dolphins have the highest threat classification status in New Zealand and are listed as critically endangered.  Hector’s dolphins are listed as endangered.


Hector’s and Maui’s preferred habitat of waters less the 100 meters deep makes them particularly vulnerable to human activities such as fishing. Gill netting is one of the biggest threats to their survival.



Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins are among the smallest dolphins in the world – so small you could fit them in a bathtub. They are the only dolphin species with a rounded dorsal fin, and are also set apart from other dolphins by their behaviour and limited distribution.



Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins are only found in shallow water less than 100 meters deep. These dolphins are protected along the West coast of the North Island and East coast of the South Island, but in order to safeguard and grow these small populations these areas need to be expanded.

Click here to see a map of their distribution. 


Legal Challenges 

Commercial fishing groups have legally challenged a previous ban on gill nets, which allowed them greater fishing rights within the Hector dolphin’s habitat. Since 2008, the protection measures placed around Hector’s dolphins has been severely compromised by these legal challenges. 



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What has been done:

In May 2008, the Government announced new measures to protect Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins which recognised the impact of gill netting and addressed a number of other threats.

The Government also extended the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary and established four new marine sanctuaries.

The new measures were a very significant step forward. But Forest & Bird believes these actions are not significant enough to stop the population decline of Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins.


 Maui’s protection:
The current ban on gill nets stretches from Maunganui Bluffs, near Dargaville, to Pariokariwa Point, north of New Plymouth, and out to 7 nautical miles offshore.

Hector’s protection:
There is currently a ban on gill nets along the east coast of the South Island from the Marlborough Sounds to the Catlins, and out to 4 nautical miles offshore.

There is also a smaller set net ban along part of the west coast of the South Island between Farewell Spit to Awarua Point, north of Fiordland. This restricts recreational set netting out to 2 nautical miles and prohibits commercial set netting between 1 December and 28 February.

What’s missing?

Maui’s dolphins:

The two most significant loopholes are:

1. Protection does not extend far enough south around Taranaki
2. Harbours are not included

A 2005 Ministry of Fisheries report shows Maui’s dolphin are found much further south than the protected area.

In 2009, a fisherman well south of the protected area filmed a Maui’s dolphin on his cellphone.
Hector’s dolphins:

The three most significant loopholes are:

1. Protection along the east coast of the South Island does not extend far enough offshore to protect important breeding and feeding habitats
2. Golden Bay and Tasman Bay at the top of the South Island are unprotected
3. The Cook Strait, linking the South Island and the North Island populations, is not protected.


What is being done?

Latest protection measures:
In March 2012, the Department of Conservation released the latest population estimate. It found there are only 55 Maui’s dolphins left in New Zealand waters. The Government immediately announced further protection was needed.

What is being proposed by the Government:

1. Interim measure: extend the set net ban along the west coast of the North Island to include the Taranaki coast from Pariokariwa Point south to Hawera and out to 4 nautical miles.

2. Interim measure: extend the marine mammal sanctuary along the west coast, south to Hawera and out to 12 nautical miles, with restrictions on seismic surveys throughout the sanctuary

3. Permanent measure: bring forward the planned review of the Hector’s and Maui’s Threat Management Plan from 2013 to 2012, prioritising the Maui’s component.

* 2012 DOC estimate