Demise of Maui's not intentional

Last updated 05:00 13/06/2014

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OPINION: Only months after receiving an unprecedented international walloping for its whaling programme, Japan is back at it with talk of more hunts.

In March, the International Court of Justice handed down an unequivocal judgment, condemning Japan's whaling scheme and ordering the country to "revoke all whaling permits".

At the time, Japan said it would abide by the decision. This week, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wanted to resume whaling forthwith, "to obtain scientific data indispensable for the management of whale resources".

This is blather - if the data is so indispensable, why have only two peer-reviewed scientific papers emerged from Japanese whale hunts since 2005? Why have 3600 minke whales been killed for that meagre result?

No, science is a front for stubbornness: despite low levels of whale consumption in Japan, top-level Japanese politicians clearly still feel the need to throw whale meat to some voters.

Perhaps it's all talk and Abe won't take the issue further. More likely, it looks like a return to normal for New Zealand: loud, steady opposition to Japan's whaling plans.

Closer to home, the International Whaling Commission is attacking New Zealand for its protection of critically endangered Maui's dolphins.

Barely 55 of these creatures survive, making them the rarest marine mammals on the planet. The commission says New Zealand isn't doing enough to protect them, and should widen restrictions to cover a bigger area and more types of fishing.

Marine scientists and environmental advocates agree. They say the Maui's population is declining - and will keep doing so if more than one dolphin dies every 16 years due to human causes.

Does this make New Zealand hypocritical, attacking Japanese whaling while letting its own cetaceans swim towards extinction?

Not quite. Strictly speaking, more could be done to make absolutely sure fishing boats don't kill these dolphins: New Zealand could close a long swath of western North Island coastline to all fishing, with obvious consequences for a big industry.

Yet this isn't so simple as Japan's bogus scientific whaling. No-one is trying to kill dolphins. In fact, significant protections over the dolphins' main patch have been put in place over the past decade.

The debate now is about exactly how cautious to be. Broader measures may or may not help - some areas proposed for protection have not seen a dolphin in hundreds of days of monitoring.

Meanwhile, the species grows by just one dolphin per year. The population is so precarious that even if fishing is banned they might still die off.

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As champions of conservation, and of international consensus, we should give the dolphins a decent chance. We need to be vigilant, and ready to widen bans.

But total caution is unreasonable. The dolphins are something of a long shot, the current measures are extensive, and we can't cast away whole industries on a punt.

- The Dominion Post

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