New marine sanctuary proposed for Bay of Islands as dolphin population plummets

A massive 91 percent decrease in the population of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands has pushed the Government to propose legislation to protect them - before it's too late.

The population has plummeted from more than 270 in 1999 down to just 26 in 2020. Of those, only 16 are frequently visiting the Bay of Islands. 

Swimming with sealife is already banned there - but the proposed changes would make it illegal for boats to approach too.

Cat Peters, a senior ranger with the Department of Conservation (DoC) told The AM Show the proposal is the first of its kind.

"The idea is you can approach up to 400 metres, and we are encouraging people to still view the wildlife, but do it on their terms - give them the choice as to whether they want to interact with you or not."

The current mortality rate for baby bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands is 75 percent, and Dr Peters says it needs to improve if New Zealanders want to continue seeing the dolphins.

"We need to make it safe for them to bring their babies here."

She credits boat traffic with the severe decline, saying the dolphins expend too much energy playing with boaters. 

"When they're spending time with boats they're doing less resting and foraging and those behaviors are really critical to survival," she said.

"They're using more energy playing with the baots - having for all intents and purposes a great time, but they're not doing those other behaviours they need to survive."

Public consultation on the new sanctuary will open on April 12 for 28 days. A decision on the proposal will be made afterwards.