New Zealand's dolphins earned more than $24 million for the country last year, and their true economic value could be much higher, Ministry of Tourism figures show.
Dolphin swimming and watching tours directly brought in an estimated $24.6m to the New Zealand economy in the year ended December 2006, WWF NZ, which sourced data from the ministry, said.
About 103,000 people reported taking part in dolphin watching or swimming in 2006.
WWF-NZ executive director Chris Howe said the figures showed dolphins were important to the nation's economy and added a whole new dimension for implementing really effective protection measures for Hector's dolphins, the species the South Island dolphin tour industry centred on.
"This can be done now under the Government's draft Hector's and Maui's dolphin threat management plan, which is currently open to public consultation, provided it includes a national ban on set nets which are the biggest threat to the animal's survival and adequately restricts trawling throughout the dolphins' range."
The findings also highlighted how carefully managed wildlife tourism activities could be an economic and conservation asset.
Mr Howe said two dolphin tour operators have pledged their support to WWF's 24,500 signature e-petition calling for the tightest controls within the plan.
"Obviously, Hector's dolphins are in fact priceless. They are amazing creatures, and live only in New Zealand. But their economic value is another reason to protect them.
"The figures from the ministry are clearly for all dolphins, not just Hector's dolphins, and underline the fact that one of the reasons people visit New Zealand is to experience our globally significant marine wildlife approximately half of which, like Hector's and Maui's dolphins, is unique to our oceans."
It made sense on all levels to protect these animals, he said.
The number of international visitors buying a dolphin watching or swimming trip had doubled in the past ten years and the latest ad from Tourism New Zealand featured dolphin swimming as an important part of the 100 per cent Pure New Zealand brand, Mr Howe said.
"This means that their true value is likely to be much higher."
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