World's rarest dolphin nears extinction
CNN Hong Kong
WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Concern is mounting at the threat commercial fishing poses to the world's rarest and smallest marine dolphin.
Many conservationists believe that the North Island's Hector's dolphin, with a population of only one hundred or so, is on the brink of extinction.
A recently discovered drowned dolphin, as well as the resumption of recreational fishing has fired up the debate over the human threat to New Zealand's only native dolphin.
"Clearly, the North Island Hector's dolphin is headed for extinction unless the government does something dramatic to prevent it," said Chris Howe, Director of Conservation at WWF New Zealand in a statement.
"Even though the fishers are putting intense pressure on the government to weaken its ban, we are calling on the Fisheries Minister to resist and instead take urgent action to ensure the total protection of North Island's Hector's dolphins."
The dolphin death toll in the last year stands at six and although determining the precise cause is difficult, the deaths according to conservationists, are due to the use of fishing nets.
More than one human-induced dolphin death every five years, says the WWF, will prevent the species from recovering to viable population levels.
Although many conservationists and fishers alike say they are keen to preserve this national icon, a conflict of interests surrounding resource use is still very obvious.
The west coast of the North Island is the second-largest area for snapper fishing and accounts for about one-third of New Zealand's total snapper catch.
Fishers argue that trawling does not impose a serious threat to the dolphins due to the fact that the activity is banned within one nautical mile of the coast.
Although North Island's Hector's dolphins swim relatively close to the shore, its range varies, like any mammal in the wild, and conservationists say it needs more room.
But if the fishing limitations are lifted, any dolphin that strays into deep water could end up in the backyard of the nation's fishing industry.
Return to netting
In August 2001, the Minister of Fisheries banned commercial and recreational set netting within most of the dolphin's range.
Yet a recent challenge by fishers, has seen the ban overturned in the High Court and recreational set netting has resumed.
Following the High Court's overturning of the ban on netting in the dolphin's range, the New Zealand government has said it will announce new measures within two months.
Conservationists want the government to protect the entire marine habitat of the North Island Hector's dolphin and ban commercial and recreational set net fisheries within four nautical miles of the shore, including harbors.
Although pro-fishing and pro-dolphin habitat lobbies talk conservation, few measures have been put in place and most agree the key thing is to stop any dolphin dying in fishing nets.
A marine mammal sanctuary has been proposed covering the dolphin's entire range, as well as a species recovery plan.
Notoriously slow breeders
Living close to the shore of the northwest coast of New Zealand's North Island, Hector's dolphins are notoriously slow breeders.
Female dolphins only have four calves in their 20-year life span.
The dolphins live in small family groups, rarely swimming more than 30 kilometers (19 miles) from their place of birth.
Netting, while currently the major threat to these dolphins, is compounded by other human-induced threats such as pollution, collisions with boats and effects on food sources.
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