Dr. Taylor Letter Sent to New Zealand Directors Regarding Hector’s Dolphins

27 August, 2018

Dr. Lian Butcher
Director Aquatic at Department of Conservation

Dr. Stuart Anderson
Director Fisheries Management, Fisheries New Zealand

Dear Drs. Butcher and Anderson:

I recently participated as an independent panelist to provide suggestions on the Threat Management Plan for Hector’s and Maui dolphins, which is in the late stages of development. To set the context of the remainder of this letter, I’d like to briefly tell you a bit about myself. I hope to provide some suggestions on how to improve future conservation efforts for Hector’s dolphins.

I work for the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and have served on many status reviews of endangered species. I presently serve as the lead evaluator of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessments for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) (in close collaboration with Randall Reeves, who chairs the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group and also served on the Hector’s dolphin panel this year). I chair the Conservation Committee of the Society for Marine Mammalogy and was for many years intensely involved in scientific analyses for the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee. I also have been heavily involved in the international recovery team for the vaquita, Mexico’s endemic porpoise species, for the past 20-plus years. As such, I feeI I’m in a good position to offer some constructive comments that are more relevant to you as natural resource managers than specifically to the team of scientists currently working on the TMP because they pertain to the interaction between scientists (both governmental and non-governmental) and managers.

This is my second experience with the Threat Management Plan process, the first being with the Maui dolphin TMP in 2012. In both cases, it was clear that the full benefits of using a team of scientists who hold all or most of the national expertise and who trust one another was not being realized. In both cases, the work was done by a group of government scientists and contractors (NIWA) but without the full integration and collaboration of the academic scientists who have produced nearly all the publications on Hector’s and Maui dolphins. This meant missing out on an enormous amount of historic knowledge that could have been used to secure the very best scientific advice. In my experience, the most productive and effective outcomes are the result of working as a team over an extended period of time.

A good example is the international recovery team for vaquitas that was assembled and led by Mexican scientists to advise the government on conservation of their endemic porpoise. This team’s members have worked together for close to 25 years and therefore the entire team is familiar with the scientific literature, all aspects of ongoing research, and the conservation challenges faced by the government. This has enabled us to communicate research findings and recommendations for conservation action to government officials and the public in a timely and authoritative fashion. For example, the recovery team has overseen the acoustic monitoring effort that allowed us to alert the Government to the catastrophic decline of vaquitas resulting from the resumption of an illegal fishery for a species being traded to China. The international team not only holds the respect of the Government of Mexico and international bodies like the International Whaling Commission but can offer advice quickly as needs arise on pressing fisheries regulation issues.

In my opinion, the conservation of New Zealand’s endemic dolphins is being hindered by not adopting such a ‘recovery team’ approach. This approach is important for species, like Hector’s dolphin, that do not come with the kinds of strong economic incentives that fuel fisheries research but that are clearly vulnerable to even low levels and rates of human-caused mortality. Fortunately, your dolphins are relatively easy to study compared with most cetaceans world-wide. They are very accessible to the public and therefore a source of great interest and pride for New Zealanders and also valuable to the ecotourism industry. With some simple management objectives that match public sentiment, Hector’s dolphin would be an ideal species around which to develop a comprehensive monitoring program, a program could be overseen on a regular and nearly continuous basis by a recovery team.

In a period when biodiversity faces unprecedented challenges and conservation funding seems more limited than ever, it is increasingly important to use scientific expertise and public enthusiasm and goodwill effectively and efficiently. It is in that spirit that this letter is written.

In conclusion, although this letter presents my own views, as Chair of the Conservation Committee of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, I have run this letter past both the Committee and the Society’s Board and gotten their support. If you choose to form an international team, the Society would be honored to provide suggested experts.

Barbara Taylor
Chair of the Conservation Committee
Society of Marine Mammalogy

Laura Boren
Ben Sharp

See Dr. Taylor’s letter here.

Presidential Letter in Support of Dr. Taylor’s Letter Regarding Hector’s Dolphins

Society President, D. Ann Pabst, wrote to express support for a letter from Dr. Barbara Taylor, Chair of the Conservation Committee, addressed to Dr. Lian Butcher,  New Zealand’s Director Aquatic at Department of Conservation and Dr. Stuart Anderson, Director of Fisheries Management, Fisheries New Zealand. The letter suggested adopting a scientific team approach to conservation of Hector’s and Maui dolphins.

See the letter sent by the Society here. 

Read the letter sent by Dr. Taylor regarding Hector’s Dolphins here.

Read the response received from Drs. Butcher and Anderson here.


New Zealand can act to conserve dolphins

Rt. Hon. Helen Clark Prime Minister
PO Box 18888 Parliament Buildings
Wellington New Zealand

New Zealand can act to conserve Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins

Dear Prime Minister:

The recent extinction of the baiji, (Lipotes vexillifer), a river dolphin endemic to China, is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of dolphins and porpoises to human activities. The Board of the Society for Marine Mammalogy wishes to convey to you its grave concern about the future of Maui’s dolphins and the continued vulnerability of Hector’s dolphin. Our Society is the largest professional group in the world dedicated to the study of marine mammals and consists of approximately 2,000 scientists from 60 countries. We are dedicated to the understanding and conservation of marine mammals and their ecosystems. As you know, only about 100 Maui’s dolphins and some 7000 Hector’s dolphins remain. Maui’s dolphins are recognized both nationally and internationally as critically endangered. The very small size of the population is of particular concern as small populations are vulnerable both to natural disasters and human impacts. Hector’s dolphins are listed as endangered by both New Zealand and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Hector’s dolphins are found in three geographically and genetically isolated populations, a situation which increases their vulnerability to human impacts.

New Zealand has been a world leader in the conservation of marine ecosystems and has demonstrated strong commitment to the conservation of Hector’s dolphins through establishment of the Bank’s Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary and the protected area for Maui’s dolphins off the North Island. We commend you and your Government for these actions and for the Draft Threat Management Plan now under consideration.

As you evaluate further measures to conserve Maui’ s and Hector’s dolphins, we urge you to consider the following:

  1. Hector’s dolphins are amongst the best-studied species of marine mammals. There is an extensive scientific literature describing the distribution, abundance, population structure and demography of these dolphins. While Maui’s dolphin is less well known, the knowledge of Hector’s dolphins is likely to be highly applicable. Management action does not need to wait for further research.
  2. The scientific evidence is very clear. The primary threat to both sub-species is bycatch in commercial and recreational gill net fisheries and trawl fisheries. Scientific evidence suggests that any level of by-catch of Maui’s dolphin is unsustainable. The estimated by-catch rates for Hector’s dolphin continue to be the primary cause of concerns for its vulnerability.
  3. The only conservation measure that has proven to reduce by-catches of all small cetaceans in gill net and trawl fisheries effectively over the long term is separation of nets and animals in time and/or space. The two protected areas for Hector’s and Maui’ s dolphins were major steps forward when they were created, but recent research has demonstrated that these areas are likely to be insufficient to allow recovery. Significant increases in the nature and extent of the spatial protection are required to limit the risk of extinction for Maui’s dolphin and to improve the conservation status of Hector’s dolphin. This protection needs to be extended to all populations of Hector’s dolphins.

We look forward to your continued leadership on this critical conservation issue. We hope that New Zealand’s actions will continue to set a global standard for the effective conservation of the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Please contact me if you would like further independent scientific advice from members of the Society who are experts in the conservation of coastal dolphins.

Yours sincerely,

John E. Reynolds, III, Ph.D. President

Hon. Steve Chadwick Minister of Conservation Parliament Buildings
P.O. Box 18888
Wellington New Zealand

Hon. Jim Anderton
Minister of Fisheries
Parliament Buildings
P.O. Box] 8888
Wellington New Zealand