Are Māui dolphins real? Green MP tries to convince Shane Jones with info booklet as new protections announced

Green MP Eugenie Sage has tried to convince NZ First MP Shane Jones that Māui dolphins are a subspecies after new protections for the animals were announced. 

Sage, the Minister of Conservation, tweeted on Thursday she would be giving Jones a copy of a Department of Conservation booklet called 'Meet the Māui' after the NZ First MP expressed doubt over the subspecies. 

Jones is convinced Māui dolphins are just Hector's dolphins. He accused environmental groups earlier this year of "deifying" the dolphins as part of a "cleverly branded" campaign after restrictions on fishing in Taranaki were proposed as a protection method.  

The discussion was reignited after Sage and Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash announced new protections on Wednesday coming into effect on October 1 as part of an updated plan to look after New Zealand's native Hector's and Māui dolphins.

Sage said Māui dolphins are critically endangered, with only about 63 left. She said the upcoming changes "will significantly increase fishing restrictions in dolphin habitats" through measures such as a nationwide ban on drift netting. 

"We know New Zealanders care deeply about looking after Māui and Hector's dolphins. There were more than 15,000 submissions and a 78,000 signature petition on options for improving their protection as part of the Threat Management Plan review." 

But Jones is still not convinced. 

"I come from the fishing industry. I was the chairman for the Māori Fisheries Commission. The existence of Māui dolphins is a clever piece of branding and it's a clever package," he told Newshub. 

"Obviously I'll stand and vote with Mr Nash but I have never, ever accepted the deification of Māui dolphins and the way in which the NGOs from the green community have driven it."

He has a message to those who believe Māui dolphins are a subspecies. 

"Don't deify random dolphins and study science. The science says they're Hector's dolphins."

Māui dolphins are critically endangered with only about 63 left.
Māui dolphins are critically endangered with only about 63 left. Photo credit: File

Sage says otherwise. 

"The Māui dolphin is indeed a real thing and I have given the Hon Shane Jones a Department of Conservation booklet 'Meet the Maui'," the Green MP told Newshub. 

Sage, when asked why she thinks Jones isn't convinced, acknowledged that Māui dolphins look very similar to Hector's dolphins. But she said DNA testing has proven the two are distinct. 

"It is a sub-species and it's genetically distinct and the DNA analysis the department has done shows that... But they do look very much the same."

Māui dolphins were once known as the North Island Hector's dolphin but since 2002 they have been classified as separate subspecies. They are almost identical to Hector's dolphins except for having larger skulls and longer snouts.  

New Zealand First MP Shane Jones.
New Zealand First MP Shane Jones. Photo credit: Newshub

Nash announced in June 2019 that commercial fishing vessels at greatest risk of encountering Māui dolphins would be required to operate with on-board cameras from November last year. 

In addition to the new measures coming into effect from October, the Government is also planning to double marine mammal protection areas across the West Coast of the North Island and prohibit seabed mining in some areas. 

The Fisheries Minister will also have the power to act immediately to impose further restrictions if a single dolphin is caught in the Māui dolphin habitat within the west coast of the North Island.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond says the protections are promising but not transformational. 

Green MP Eugenie Sage.
Green MP Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: Newshub

"Powers to add additional regulation if a dolphin is killed sounds impressive, but with only around 63 Maui dolphins left, even one killed is already too many. We can't take back extinction, once they're gone, that's it."

There are other threats to the Māui dolphin population, including toxoplasmosis. The dolphins can become infected by the parasitic disease - which reproduces in cats - by consuming contaminated water or prey. 

It's a confirmed cause of death in Hector's and Māui dolphins and the Government will be rolling out a "toxoplasmosis action plan". 

You can read about the new regulations here.