Government proposes marine sanctuary in Bay of Islands as bottlenose dolphins face extinction

The population of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands is so dire they could be gone in a year, prompting the Government to make moves to give them better protection.

Plans for a marine mammal sanctuary went public on Thursday that puts restrictions on people and boats on the water.  

Cat Peters, Department of Conservation marine ranger, says the dolphins are facing extinction and "there's no other way to describe it".

Researchers have been documenting the demise of the bottlenose dolphin for 20 years.

Their population has plummeted from 278 in 1999 to just 26 last year, with only 16 frequently visiting the bay. 

Conservation Minister Kiri Allan wants to do something about it.

"In my mind, it means action must be taken," she says.

The Government proposed a marine mammal sanctuary to protect the bottlenose and other unique species from harmful human interaction.

Swimming with sea life is already banned in the area, and the new plan would also keep boats 400 metres away from them. And in two "safe zones" within the bays, there will be a speed limit of five knots. 

"The number of boats out here in the bay interacting with dolphins means they're no longer healthy and go about their day as they normally would," Peters says.

The public is now being encouraged to have its say from April. 

Tourism operators are following the proposal closely. The bays attract thousands of visitors every year who visit to go out and get a close-up experience of the wildlife. 

Local iwi want future generations to be at the heart of the decision-making.

"This includes including our tamariki and mokopuna so they know the importance of keeping these mammals alive," Puti Corbett of Ngā Hapū o te Pēwhairangi says.

Because at this rate of decline, there will be no dolphins left as early as next year.