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Experts call for urgent action to save world's smallest dolphin as New Zealand mulls options

03-14-2012 15:30 BJT

WELLINGTON, March 14 (Xinhua) -- Calls for greater protection for the critically endangered world's smallest dolphin mounted Wednesday, with experts saying the species still had a chance of survival, but only if action was taken immediately.

A joint New Zealand-United States study of the Maui's dolphin, which lives only in New Zealand waters and is believed to have a population of just 55, showed that its fertility rates were being maintained, according to a University of Auckland statement.

"Despite low abundance, the population has maintained an equal balance of females and males and retained a surprising, albeit low, level of genetic diversity over the years," said research co- leader Professor Scott Baker, of the University of Auckland and Oregon State University.

The dolphins were travelling distances of up to 80 km throughout their main range on the west coast of the North Island, preventing further fragmentation and isolation of groups within the small population, he said in the statement.

The mixing was likely to maximize the dolphin's chances of finding a mate, and their fertility was at normal levels.

"One concern with such a dangerously low number of breeding females has been that the fertility of the population may be compromised, but our work shows that the number of pregnant females is within the expected range, which is encouraging," said Auckland University researcher Dr Rochelle Constantine in the statement.

DNA analysis also revealed that two migrant female Hector's dolphins, related to the Maui's dolphin but a separate sub-species, had mixed with the Maui's dolphins the first recorded contact between the two sub-species.

The females were thought to have originated from the West Coast of the country's South Island, from where they traveled at least 400 km, the longest distance ever recorded for the Hector's dolphin.

"This unexpected discovery provides hope that if the Hector's dolphins mate with Maui's dolphins, they may enhance the genetic diversity of the Maui's dolphin population," said research co- leader Rebecca Hamner in the statement.

The scientists said their findings supported the need to protect not only the main zones in which the two sub-species lived, but also the corridors that linked them.

The findings were released the day after the New Zealand government announced it was considering further measures to protect the Maui's dolphin.

The Maui's dolphin the world's smallest dolphin is found only on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand and is New Zealand's rarest dolphin.

It is listed internationally as "critically endangered," which means there is a high risk of it becoming extinct in the near future, according to the Department of Conservation.

The Hector's dolphin, also one of the world's smallest, growing to just 1.5 meters in length, is listed as "nationally vulnerable. "

Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson and Primary Industries Minister David Carter Tuesday announced they were proposing to extend the set net ban along the North Island's west coast and to extend the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

The opposition Green Party, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, WWF, the Environmental Defence Society and other conservation groups have called for immediate action to protect the Maui's dolphin, while the fishing industry has opposed "extremist" and "knee-jerk" net restrictions.

Victoria University biologist Dr Wayne Linklater said Wednesday the current measures were not sufficient to protect the breeding population.

"If we lose Maui dolphin it is likely that the effects will cascade through the food chain to radically change the community of plants and animals off our coasts. The loss of fish predators like dolphin can actually reduce ocean productivity for fisheries in the long-term," said Linklater in a statement.

"The slowness with which the fishing industry and our political representatives act is a part of the problem. Calls for immediate action are warranted. We must act now not just because an early response has a better chance of rescuing a species, but because we can learn by acting. Even if measures prove ineffective we have learned what else might be tried," he said.

"We act now or we lose a species. There is only one right choice - act."

The New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen Wednesday said the industry was being unfairly targeted in the proposals to save the species.

"This proposal puts the blame at the fishermen's door and ignores all the other known factors including disease, pollution and natural predators such as sharks and orcas," said federation president Doug Saunders-Loder in a statement.

Editor:Wang Lingfei |Source: Xinhua

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