Urgent intervention needed to keep dolphins in the bay
Bay of Islands waters will be without bottlenose dolphins if action is not taken about the high rate of vessel interaction, a new report warns.
The Massey University report commissioned by the Department of Conservation found that a high volume of boats approaching dolphins is affecting their important behaviours.
Both private and commercial vessels are responsible for dolphins spending 86 per cent of daylight hours in the presence of at least one boat, the report found.
DOC spokeswoman Sue Reed-Thomas says this is very disruptive for dolphins.
"It means they spend far less time feeding, nursing their young and sleeping.
"We know people love dolphins. People are simply loving them too much."
The local bottlenose population has fallen from more than 250 individuals to fewer than 100 in the past 15 years, with nearly three quarters of calves failing to reach maturity.
Lead Researcher Catherine Peters found that when boats were within 300 metres, dolphins spent less time undertaking critical behaviours and instead partake in more "energy-sapping" behaviours such as socialising and diving.
Three commercial marine mammal tourism operators are permitted to view and swim with bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands.
Coastal-Marine Research Group Director and supervisor to Peter's study, Dr Karen Stockin, says while the impact of changed behaviour and the falling population could not be proven, it is clear that it is declining rapidly and urgent intervention is needed.
DOC has already taken on board some of the recommendations made in the report.
Reed-Thomas says they have begun talking to local boat operators and iwi as part of an education and engagement programme.
"We will also be maintaining our moratorium on new commercial dolphin watching operations in the region and looking at strengthening local marine mammal regulations."
Bottlenose dolphins reside in the Bay of Islands, Fiordland and the north west of the South Island and are considered nationally endangered.
Commercial operators are required to have permits for dolphin watching tours which have conditions set out to protect dolphins from undue stress.
Fullers GreatSights Bay of Islands general manager Charles Parker says over the past 18 months they have made voluntary reductions in their level of interaction with marine mammals.
"Our skippers and crew are passionate wildlife advocates and feel privileged to be able to interact with dolphins and other marine mammals in accordance with the regulations of our licence."