Critical information on some very vulnerable species only comes out four times a year – and conservationists want to know why
With a population of approximately 54 adult Māui dolphins living in a habitat stretching from Northland to Whanganui, most Kiwis will never see one.
Along with its cousin the Hector’s dolphin, whose breeding population hovers around the precarious 15,000, these tiny dolphins with their distinctive round fins face a barrage of existential threats, from fishing nets to toxoplasmosis.
But on Christmas Day, some Kiwis got the chance to spot one of these rare creatures at Auckland’s Muriwai Beach. Unfortunately, the dolphin was already halfway through the task of being decommissioned – another shock in the death rattle of the world’s most endangered dolphin species.
But while some one-off cases like this have attracted media attention, the deaths of the Māui and Hector dolphins are often not published by the Department of Conservation (DoC), until they quietly update the incident database at the end of each quarter.
Genevieve Robinson, a marine mammal advocate from Christchurch, said nine Hectors and one Māui dolphin have died since November — nearly one a week.
But with current DoC processes, this information has traditionally only been available to the public every few months, and the bodies of the animals themselves have sometimes not been lifted to record sex, age, or cause of death.
In the case of Muriwai’s tragic Christmas present, the dolphin was too far in the decomposition process, and the sex and cause of death remain a mystery.
Nevertheless, those with an interest in keeping an eye on how the dolphins are doing will only get information from DoC, with updates posted in May, August and November each year.
Robinson wonders why such vital information for the preservation of New Zealand is not freely disseminated.
“They know damn well that it is extremely important that people in the New Zealand government and the public know this information – it is also of international importance as legal action has been taken with Sea Shepherd and others abroad regarding the fishing industry ,” she said. “We must know these things, otherwise we cannot act.”
When asked why the public notification of the deaths followed an erratic schedule, DoC shipping technical adviser Kristina Hillock said the quarterly reports allowed staff to complete and collect all necessary paperwork. and also allow time for any necropsy.
“This means that when the data is shared with the public, we have the most complete and accurate picture to share,” she said.
However, as was the case with the Muriwai Beach Māui dolphin, sometimes the horse is already stranded when it comes to necropsy.
Dolphin incident data provided by DoC shows a range of results when it comes to scientists getting information from the dolphin carcasses.
The calf of a Hector that washed up on the shore at Ōkārito on the west coast last November was sent to Massey University for inspection. An issue with the cargo, however, meant the body was not refrigerated and decomposed past the point of valuable testing.
In the same month, another very small calf washed ashore in Marlborough. By the time the DoC staff arrived, it was too decomposed for autopsy and a feral cat ate its fins.
Many other dead dolphins have been analyzed by DoC and their details published – but not until the quarterly update is due.
DoC’s response seemed to emphasize the predictability of the timing of information, rather than any sense of immediacy, with Hillock saying the system means “the timing of incidents being updated is predictable to the public, and DoC- staff can plan their work around them, knowing that this task must take place right now.
She did note that information is shared more timely with mana whenua.
Delay in the dolphin database
Marine biology professor Liz Slooten of the University of Otago wondered what the DoC’s stated reasons are for providing information about this shutdown schedule — one that seems to minimize the significance of the dolphins’ shrinking numbers.
“Imagine if information about Covid was only provided on a quarterly basis,” she said. “If a dolphin dies on a beach or in a fishing net in November, why do they keep it until April?”
The consequences of this delay could be media attention – if a reporter gets a photo of a dead dolphin found that same day, the story could appear in the press the next day. However, if all deaths are collected and then reported publicly when they are months old, they are less likely to be widely reported.
And with species with populations already low enough to slip past the point of no return to extinction without most Kiwis realizing it, the risks of information blocking are magnified.
“Changes at a significant population level on a short time scale may be plausible for Māui dolphins because of the small population size,” Hillock said. This means that massive proportional changes in the population of Māui dolphins could have occurred in the time it takes to make the most recent data available. And at this point in the dolphins’ story, the chances of growth would be zero.
This is less likely for the Hector dolphins with their larger population, but they are still classified as Nationally Vulnerable by DoC itself.
This leaves it to the media to publicize the frequent deaths of the dolphins. Whether this happens enough may be a matter of opinion, but it’s hard to argue that by having all the details, DoC could do its part to ensure these events are reported as they happen.
“In some cases, especially in remarkable circumstances, individual incidents (or unusual clusters) will be reported through the media, but this is separate from reporting through the database,” Hillock said.
‘Conservation is everyone’s business’
Slooten suspects this is the result of DoC shifting its focus from conservation to business and economic interests — a claim supported by this research on changes in the department over the years.
This includes changes such as cutting back on operational, scientific and technical personnel and building a closer relationship with the Ministry of Primary Industries.
The study authors found that DoC has undergone several makeovers since its inception in 1987, with at least six restructurings in 32 years.
“The research shows that the core function of DoC has changed over the years to support the economy,” said Slooten. “They have been told by the government to build these relationships with the business community.”
She pointed to their collaborations with companies like Air New Zealand, with whom they developed a recent safety video – the story of a young girl who, with the help of the two organizations, transports a lost takahē to his new home.
“People like me do sort of air travel — not really compatible with conservation…” Slooten said. “They may have gone from green to greenwashed.”
DoC’s relationship with the Ministry of Primary Industries is evident in the Fisheries Observer Program, where MPI staff members go out on the fishing vessels to observe and report any incidents involving protected species.
However, these observers should be given priority over ships operating in high-risk areas, as covering the entire territory of the dolphins would be a mammoth task.
“Observer coverage is very high in areas where Māui dolphins can be found,” Hillock said.
Since 1922, five hundred and seventy-one Hector’s dolphins have been found dead – about 4 percent of their total modern population. More than 100 of these were reportedly killed by humans, mostly as a result of entanglement in fishing nets. In a few cases they were harpooned and hit once with a craft.
The majority were found dead on the shore, with little to say about the cause of their deaths in many cases. In some cases of dolphins, notes have been written suggesting that they may have been at fault through humans’ unwitting excursions into their territory.
“Just-marked carcass… An eye was plucked out,” reads the note on a Hector’s dolphin, its body thrown onto a beach in Timaru.