It's been a while since I've written about the campaign to save the last 55 Maui's Dolphins in New Zealand. We had a micro-success in May this year when government extended fishing restrictions to include the Taranaki region on the southern end of the species' range, but the truth is that the dolphins are far from safe – this token measure was the equivalent of giving endangered pandas a couple of extra trees to climb. It won't stop the steady mortalities that have bought Maui's to the brink of oblivion.
NZ out in the Cold
At a meeting of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Korea last month there was a vote on what should be done to help this situation. The hands of 576 IUCN members, including national representatives, NGOs, and researchers went up to say that the only way to protect these dolphins definitively is to extend the ban on gill-net and trawling to the 100-meter depth contour in all areas where the dolphins are found, including harbours. Amidst this sea of solidarity, a single hand, that of a New Zealand bureaucrat, went up to say "ahem, it's okay how it is, thanks…" Look closely above that hand and you could see the fine strings of its puppeteer back in NZ's government.
Conservationists, scientists, ocean-lovers, and most other unlobotomized homo sapiens are confused. It's understandable that such stubborn myopia is bewildering to the rational mind. After all a government is a collection of mostly reasonable individuals, and it is hard to imagine sitting down with anyone and not being able to convince them that an entire species - a singularity of Earth's biodiversity - is important enough to justify all the precautionary measures recommended by the experts who have studied the species and their demise for decades.
Status Quo = Extinction
These precautionary measures, in a nutshell, are a zero tolerance approach to fishing-related mortality. The species can not endure more than one human-induced death every 5 years. The rate is currently around 100 times more than that.
In 100 years no one will care if a handful of fishermen had to find other jobs (the fishermen themselves probably won't care much in even 10 years), but they will care about a species that is lost forever, and they will remember the infamy and names of a government that did nothing to stop it.
Last Chance to Act
However there is no pleasure in "I told you so." And so we are forced to force their hand: to give them no opportunity but to make what is, objectively, the right decision.
This begins with the next round of submissions to the government. Please take the time (literally 15 seconds) to follow this link and sign a submission on Hector's and Maui's Dolphin management to be sent to the NZ government. Of course if you invite your Facebook friends to sign also then you earn extra karmic points!
Become a voice for
the last 55 Maui's dolphins
Around the world today there are many species threatened with extinction. Frogs, bats, sharks, parrots, tigers, owls, rhinos, and dolphins are struggling to survive on the fringes of a human world. It would be unfair to argue that any of these species is inherently more valuable than another. However being a New Zealander, and a freediver with a natural admiration of dolphins, I've been trying to make a difference for the Maui's and Hector's Dolphins, the world's smallest and most endangered dolphin species.
To be honest, if you were to choose a species to try and save then this has to be the easiest pick, for a variety of reasons:
And yet, and yet … Despite all this, despite tens of thousands of petition signatures, individually written letters to the ministers and prime minister, despite the schoolchildrens' handwritten poems and carefully-coloured dolphin pictures, despite dozens of damning international press articles, all efforts and results for which I am sure the readers of this blog have played a large part… despite all this, Hector's and Maui's dolphins are no more protected than they were five months ago.
Why? New Zealand's government is contemptuously playing a waiting game. They are waiting for the outcry over a spate of net-scarred dolphin carcasses that washed up on the beaches last summer to die down. They are waiting for the furor over the latest Maui's population estimate - lower than anyone possibly feared - to subside. They are an entropic government, waiting for entropy to have its way.
And meanwhile, while they waver and defer, while they shelve and consult, in the winter seas of New Zealand's west coast a population of now less than 55 animals, who represent the entirety of their species, swims every day in a territory that overlaps with the unscrupulous set nets and trawlers that have brought their number to the verge of annihilation.
I know I'm not alone in saying that I will not wait or be content until they are protected and their numbers begin to increase. In the second half of this year, several documentaries and features including one with CBS's 60 Minutes, the most viewed and respected television journalism program worldwide, will air, telling parts of my story and showing the world the dark side of NZ's shameful treatment of these dolphins. By exposing the truth and threatening the multi-billion dollar business of tourism and fisheries, perhaps we can finally convince the NZ lawmakers into making the right decision.
The campaign to save New Zealand's Hector's and Maui's Dolphins inevitably pits those who care about biodiversity and marine life against a fishing industry that is doing such an appalling job at protecting it.
It can't be denied that some kind of character generalisations apply to the different trades that people wind up practicing. Nurses and kindergarten teachers are for the most part caring individuals, airline pilots are likely to be cool-headed and responsible, master chefs are often creative and inquisitive. Either they are shaped this way by their trade, or they are attracted to the job because they already have these qualities.
What then can be said about employees who every day toss away up to 90% of the life forms that they are responsible for killing? Their job is to remove the turtles, birds, unwanted fish, dolphins and more from the nets that have asphyxiated them, and discard their lifeless bodies back into the ocean. Is it likely that these are the sort of individuals who can be relied on to give honest testimony as to the number of endangered dolphins that are killed in their nets?
Some people are obviously not cut out for this job, and several ex-fishermen have come forward to speak about the nightmare of their time on these boats. They tell tales of crews cutting dolphin's heads off or eviscerating them, in an attempt to make their bodies sink so they don't wash up on the beach and threaten their livelihoods. New Zealand activist Pete Bethune's twin brother Barry witnessed 5 Hector's Dolphins caught on the boat he was working on in a single day, and another 10 were caught in the same location that year. The captain later stated to media that he hadn't caught a single Hector's Dolphin in 20 years of fishing. Crew are told to keep quiet, since the dolphins are "stealing their fish and livelihood." This is like early European settlers arriving in America and complaining that the native Indians are 'stealing their buffalo' and thus deserve to be wiped out!
Grasping at justifications, the fishing industry has tried to hijack the term extinction, claiming that their business will 'go extinct' if protection measures are put in place. Even if this were true (which it needn't be – there are many examples of fishing businesses in other countries adapting to sustainable methods after net bans) then is it even a factor that warrants consideration?
Maree Kissick, evidently a fisherman's wife, posted a reply on my other blog which finished by saying "I am one of those people who will lose my home over your meddling affairs you know little about!" While a mortgage default would be unfortunate (if highly unlikely) businesses can be adapted, and homes can be downsized. Extinct species cannot be retrieved. Personally, if I knew that by giving up my house, all money and possessions I might save a species, then I would consider it my duty and do so without hesitation. I expect that anyone who shares a love of this planet and its denizens would feel a similar responsibility.
Back in 2008, a Colmar Branton poll released by WWF showed that 83% of New Zealanders would prefer to have set net and trawl fishing banned completely rather than risk extinction of NZ's endemic dolphins. As the numbers of NZ's dolphins have dwindled, and the sentiments against unecological practices like net-fishing have grown, I expect that percentage has risen also.
NZ's government has the choice to either represent their electors, as well as a basic ethical duty, or they can represent a handful of greedy businesses engaged in an out-dated and merciless mode of fishing.
You can have your say by participating in our online opinion poll, which asks:
Would you give up seafood from New Zealand to save Maui's and Hector's dolphins?
For the last two years I've been involved in a campaign to protect New Zealand's endemic dolphins, the Hector's and Maui's Dolphins.
Recently the situation with the latter species has become drastic, with only 55 individuals left, and this, coupled with the governments continued stonewalling and stalling of the issue has meant that the campaign has become more urgent. If those who are able to change the legislation to protect the dolphins don't have the moral common sense to do so then we must talk in their language, and show that the loss of a species (and what would be the first human-induced extinction of a marine dolphin) would be the bane of New Zealand's tourism industry and the international brand image it is founded on ("100% Pure", "Clean, Green NZ" etc).
As a freediver I feel a close affinity to dolphins. It's clear from my own experiences, and from the way they are known to protect swimmers from sharks or interact with snorkelers and surfers, that these mammals reciprocate this kinship.
Intrinsically it's impossible to argue that any one species is more valuable than another, and it's true that we anthropomorphize dolphins a lot and are fond of them in part for their unfailing smile and playful mirth. However they are also the most intelligent order of beings after man, and offer us not just another statistic of biodiversity, but also a chance to learn about ourselves through the ineluctable inspiration that is granted just by being in the presence of creatures in such perfect harmony with their world.
To the maori they are known as tutumairekurai, which means 'special ocean dweller.'
Should we lose such a rare example of the life's wonders for ever it would be a black mark on our name as stewards of this planet.
only a fraction of the dolphins' home (red) is protected (green)
The first and only dolphin to become extinct so far due to human influence was a fresh water dolphin: the Yangtze River Dolphin. While they inhabited a tiny stretch of water in the most populated country of the planet (still no excuse for their extinction of course), the same can not be said for New Zealand's Dolphins.
It is only through the rampant greed and malpractice of a government-pampered fishing industry that their species have been strangled to close to extinction. The imperative and only course of action is incontestable: trawling and gill-netting must be made illegal across the dolphins' entire territory. Benefit of doubt must be given to a crippled species, not to a belligerent fishing industry.
I will not be content until this course of action has been implemented. It will give me further inspiration to dive deeper, to break more records, and with each press interview that follows use the publicity to further expose the moral vacuity of a government that promotes its country as "100% pure" while acting as an accomplice in the speciocide of Hector's and Maui's Dolphins.