No, that’s not a football score, it’s the score-card on how our countries are faring in the protection of two of the world’s smallest and cutest marine mammals: Mexico’s vaquita porpoise and New Zealand’s Maui’s dolphin.
New Zealand and Mexico share the dishonor of being responsible for the decline of the world’s rarest marine dolphin and porpoise, both critically endangered with less than 100 animals left. The International Whaling Commission has criticised the lack of action by New Zealand and Mexico to protect these species.
But thanks to people power, there’s now a ray of hope for Mexico’s vaquita. The Mexican Government this week announced the protected area – where harmful gillnet fishing is banned to prevent entangling and drowning vaquita – will be extended to cover the full 13,000 square kilometers of habitat. Navy speed boats and drones will police the area to combat illegal fishing.
For years, Greenpeace and other NGOs in Mexico have been calling for urgent protection to avoid extinction of vaquita, which experts warned could happen by 2018. This latest great news shows that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto heard the call from 472,000 people around the world to save vaquita, and is taking action.
Meanwhile, things are looking rather more grim in New Zealand. Because the protected area for Maui’s dolphins covers only a section of their habitat, net fishing continues in other parts of their range. This leaves the critically endangered dolphins at risk of being tangled and drowned in nets; a risk the tiny population cannot afford. Tragically, only 55 dolphins over the age of one year are now left.
As if to add insult to injury, New Zealand’s pro-big-oil government recently announced new exploration permit areas for oil drilling right inside the Maui’s sanctuary. Aside from the fact that this area is already too small to protect Maui’s dolphins throughout their habitat, it can hardly be described as a “sanctuary” if oil companies are allowed in there to carry out drilling and seismic surveying, which involves loud underwater blasts every 10-15 seconds for days, weeks or months on end.
The blasts, created by large underwater air guns, generate a pressure wave that penetrates the seafloor and the reflected sound waves are then recorded by an array of sensors dragged on long cables after the ship.
These blasts can be heard over 100kms away and it’s believed they could have chronic impacts on whales and dolphins’ behaviour and ability to navigate, feed, nurture young and find mates.
New Zealanders have already expressed their outrage at the lack of government action to protect Maui’s dolphins. Over the past three years there have been multiple ‘public consultations’ involving at least 70,000 submissions – almost all calling for full protection of the species. But in each case the Minister of Conservation has failed to heed the concern. Despite an earlier assurance that the sanctuary boundaries would be extended if dolphins were observed outside it, a recent verified sighting was dismissed by the Minister, apparently because there was a chance it might be a different species, Hector’s dolphin (which is itself endangered, and also at risk from net fishing and oil drilling).
The plight of the dolphins and our marine environment was also brought to the attention of oil execs in New Zealand for the annual Petroleum Summit last month. Inside the conference centre, Minister of Energy and Resources Simon Bridges announced vast areas of ocean were open for exploration and drilling, including risky deep sea drilling. Outside the venue, activists held images showing the real human impacts of oil drilling and climate change and thousands beat drums and marched to protest against oil drilling in New Zealand waters.
The recent move by the Mexican President to give vaquita a chance at survival shows that ordinary people can move the powers that be. So far however, New Zealanders’ calls to protect Maui’s dolphins properly have fallen on deaf ears. And it doesn’t make sense. New Zealand is a country whose people take pride in its natural riches: Beautiful landscapes, unique wildlife and unspoiled oceans. Indeed the New Zealand economy relies heavily on tourism and its ‘clean, green’ reputation. As an island nation where 75% of the population live within 10kms of the sea, the ocean and its inhabitants are integral to the kiwi way of life.
All this is being jeopardised and New Zealand risks becoming only the second country in the world to oversee the extinction of a dolphin species through human impacts.
You can add your voice to the call to protect Maui’s dolphin – let’s see if people power can move prime ministers as well as presidents.
Karli Thomas is senior oceans campaigner with Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand. She has spent many months at sea in fishing grounds, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean and as far south as Antarctic waters. Karli coordinates Greenpeace’s pirate fishing blacklist and works on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
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