New drone labelled 'game changer' in fight to save critically endangered Māui dolphins

Kiwi scientists say a new drone could be key to saving the critically endangered Māui dolphins.

The technology is so sophisticated, it can distinguish Māui and Hector's dolphins from other species at 400 metres above the ocean. 

The only problem is the drone's $350,000 dollar price tag - for only 12 weeks use.

There are only 63 adult Māui dolphins left, making footage of the mammals in the wild incredibly rare - however, that could soon change.

"This will be able to give us data all year round about Māui [dolphins], where they are, how their habitat is going, what they're doing... it's a game changer," World Wide Nature Fund CEO Livia Esterhazy told Newshub.

Scientists only track Māui dolphins by boat for around three weeks a year, depending on conditions.  

Commercial fishing vessels, waterborne parasites and climate change are all endangering the species - yet it is unclear which of these poses the biggest threat.

"The lack of data is the single-most critical problem we have in helping everybody protect these dolphins," Esterhazy said.

The new drone has been tested over the last 18 months. It can isolate Māui dolphins and measure other data, such as water colour.

"We're looking to get more funds than that so we can fly all year round," she said.

New Zealand's largest seafood company, Sanford, says it could be willing to chip in.

"We certainly don't want to own the project, but we want to contribute to it," said Colin Williams, Sanford Fishing's general manager.

Williams said the data will be critical to helping its vessels steer clear of Māui dolphins.. 

"If we can take advantage of the technology that's available from that drone, link it through to our vessel navigation system and  introduce some geofencing... we can respond pretty much immediately," he said.

The more information about Māui dolphins, the better chance there is of protecting them.