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A new warning has sounded for the world's smallest dolphin, with a researcher now reporting there are less than 50 Maui's dolphins left.
Dr Barbara Maas of the NABU International Nature Conservation Foundation and the University of Otago's Professor Liz Slooten are presenting new research during discussions with 200 leading cetacean scientists at the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee in San Diego.
Research by Dr Maas reports the numbers of the critically endangered Maui dolphin, endemic to our waters, have sunk to an all-time low of between 43 and 47 individuals, and just 10 to 12 adult female Maui's dolphins.
She warned that unless the level of fisheries protection was increased significantly, the critically endangered dolphins could become extinct in just 15 years.
The subspecies of Hector's dolphins, found in shallow coastal waters up to depths of 100m off the North Island's west coast, have become a symbol for environmentalists challenging gill netting and trawling by commercial fishers, and Government oil and gas exploration block offers in habitat areas.
Earlier this year, Auckland councillors voted to oppose oil exploration in a sanctuary home to the dolphin, but stopped short of following Christchurch City Council and opposing any exploration, while a survey suggested Kiwis would be happy to pay for greater protection for the dolphins.
Population numbers - which environmentalists have generally put at 55 and the Department of Conservation has estimated at between 48 and 69 - had dropped 97% as a result of fishing since the 1970s, NABU International Nature Conservation Foundation said in a statement.
The group stated the numbers had dropped from 111 in 2004 to 59 in 2010/11, and claimed the absence of man-made deaths, such as dying in fishing nets, would set the dolphins back on the road to recovery and allow numbers to grow to 500 individuals in 87 years.
Because Maui's dolphins could only cope with one human-induced death every 10-20 years, immediate conservation measures are urgently required, NABU said.
There has been debate around figures surrounding the dolphin's population and its extinction deadline.
Last year, a Ministry for Primary Industries spokesperson told the New Zealand Herald that while there was no debate numbers were at a "very low level", the Government had not seen any analysis or evidence that supported research suggesting existing protection measures would lead to the Maui dolphin's functional extinction within the next two decades.
Dr Maas said the new figures were an "unmistakable wake-up call", arguing New Zealand had to stop placing the interests of the fishing industry above biodiversity conservation.
At present, the Government has in place a range of set net, trawling and drift net restrictions throughout the dolphins' habitat, while there are also restrictions on seabed mining and acoustic seismic survey work within the boundaries of the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary, which was extended in 2013 to include more of the Maui dolphin's range in the Taranaki area.
The Government was also reviewing a threat management plan already in place for the dolphins, with the programme to be informed by a marine research and advisory group of scientific and stakeholder experts.