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  • Writer's pictureBen Waterworth

Rare dolphins’ unique Southland connection

Updated: Jan 1, 2022

As the fight to save New Zealand’s very own breed of dolphin continues, one expert says Southland has a unique claim to the species that should give all Southlanders extra pride when it comes to the animal. Dolphin researcher and expert Gemma McGrath said the rare Hector’s dolphin breed was not only important to the entire country, but to the Southland region as well, with the oceans around the province laying claim to its own unique subspecies of the endangered animal.

Mrs McGrath said the genetic makeup of Hector’s dolphins in Southland was different enough to make them their own subspecies, even though it hasn’t officially been declared as one.

“They’ve got unique haplotypes compared to other areas. Even within Southland, the ones at Te Waewae Bay compared to the ones at Porpoise Bay in the Catlins are different. They have some haplotypes the same but the Catlins ones have a unique one that aren’t seen anywhere else around the whole South Island. So it just reflects that community make up. It’s quite special really but it makes them even more endangered when you think of it that way because they’re just little groups.”

It is estimated there are less than 15,000 Hector’s dolphins remaining across New Zealand, with the species concentrated mainly around the South Island. They are one of the smallest dolphin breeds in the world.

The main subspecies of the Hector’s dolphin, the Maui, are even more critically endangered, with fewer than 100 estimated to be alive and concentrated on the west coast of the North Island.

Numbers of the dolphins have dropped significantly Mrs McGrath said, due to them getting caught in plastic set nets which replaced cotton and hemp set nets from the 1960s on.

“Once upon a time they were the most common dolphin species seen in New Zealand. Now they are the rarest. They were being caught at rates faster than they could breed, and their numbers began to drop. We are left with a remnant of what we used to have.

“These dolphins echolocate to find their food… but sometimes they’re not always using their echolocation because they’re sneaking up on food and they get caught. You’d think that the dolphins are too big to get caught but they get caught in their teeth real easy. So basically wherever there are nets in the water there are dolphins at risk of being caught.”

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A dolphin expert says there is a unique subspecies of Hector’s dolphins in Southland

Mrs McGrath said the campaign to ban set nets in New Zealand had been going on for a long time, and the current review of the government’s Threat Management Plan was still ongoing and had allowed campaigners to raise further awareness for a ban to the practice.

She said before Threat Management rules came into place in 2007, upwards of 150 dolphins were being caught each year.

“Most developed countries around the world have banned set nets. But not New Zealand… there are still a minority of people that still do it. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was nets made of natural materials because they break down naturally. They don’t cause ongoing plastic pollution and they don’t catch everything.”

“I’m not anti-fishing at all. I am anti those wasteful, harmful methods.”

An exhibition of Mrs McGrath’s research is currently on display at the Te Hikoi Museum in Riverton and part of it has allowed local school children in the area to leave messages of support for the animals as well as receive education around the campaign to save them.

A sightings app is also available, which encourages people to report any dolphin sightings, allowing Mrs McGrath and other researchers to keep up to date with numbers.

She said that people sharing stories of their experience with the dolphins was important to help showcase just how vital they were, to not only Southland, but New Zealand as well.

“We’re encouraging people to write their stories about what they remember, say for example they might remember surfing with dolphins every day when they were teenagers back in the 70s or 60s somewhere. That is so important because these are places where they’re not common anymore. So it just kind of helps add evidence to all of that information. We’re catching people’s stories… this exhibition is a start to capture that and celebrate that relationship which is quite beautiful.”

Mrs McGrath has been studying dolphins for more than 20 years and has worked at Whalewatch Kaikoura and for numerous NGOs including the World Wildlife Fund, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Whale and Dolphin Conservation and has held a series of talks about dolphins as part of the exhibition.

She hopes to take the exhibition to other regional museums around the country, and was planning on doing so once the exhibition closed in Riverton in April next year.

This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here

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