Death of rare Māui dolphin brings species closer to extinction


The world's smallest and rarest marine dolphin, Akaroa Harbour, New Zealand.
The world's smallest and rarest marine dolphin, Akaroa Harbour, New Zealand.

The Māui dolphin or popoto is the world’s rarest and smallest known subspecies of dolphin, only found off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and now they are close to extinction.

The discovery of a rare Māui dolphin found washed up dead near Te Akau, 20km north of Raglan, New Zealand on Sunday has saddened the Department of Conservation (DoC) and wider community as it is estimated there are fewer than 70 Māui dolphins left. The critically endandered species is believed to only live off the west coast of the North Island and are the rarest and smallest of the known 32 dolphin species.

WWF-NZ said the dolphin’s death highlights the urgent need for more protection throughout their habitat. WWF-New Zealand CEO Livia Esterhazy says, “With only around 60 adult Māui dolphins remaining, the death of just one is a tragedy. We express condolences to the local iwi and hapu, as kaitiaki for Māui dolphins. We know that Kiwis love these dolphins. This death pushes an already critically-endangered population closer to extinction.”

The Māui dolphin population plummeted from around 1500 in the 1970s, when gillnets were widely introduced to New Zealand waters.

“The biggest threat these dolphins face is from set nets and conventional trawling ­– less than 8% of the Māui dolphin habitat is protected from both these forms of fishing,” says Esterhazy. 

She says that two fishing companies – Moana New Zealand and Sanford – had voluntarily promised to move to fishing methods that don’t kill dolphins across the Māui dolphin habitat. “We applaud this move towards greater protection for our native species and the commitment these companies are showing to doing the right thing.”

The dolphin will be transported to Massey University’s veterinary pathology specialists in Palmerston North to determine its cause of death, after which iwi have requested return of the remains.

Esterhazy says the government is building the scientific basis for a plan to protect these dolphins. “Scientists tell us that it’s not too late. Every New Zealander can play a part in protecting these precious dolphins. We have a responsibility to our tamariki and our mokoponua to do all we can to protect these last remaining Māui dolphins and work together for a result we can all be proud of.”

The DOC asks the public to photograph and report any sightings of a Māui dolphin to the emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

To express your concern regarding the precarious future of the Māui dolphin, you can write to the Prime Minister at



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