Heck of a project begins
The world's smallest marine dolphin, the Hector's, will be the subject of phase one of a larger research project.
Photos and sighting information will be used to create a catalogue of recognisable individual Hector's dolphins frequently seen in the Kaikoura area.
The project will be run by The Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute, which made a successful application for funding from the Encounter Foundation, a charitable trust set up by the partners in Encounter Kaikoura in November 2009.
Boat-based coastal surveys from January to June will gather additional photographs of Hector's dolphins north and south of Kaikoura, and identify the specific micro-habitats frequented by individuals in the area.
The project will build valuable knowledge about Kaikoura's Hector's dolphin population.
There has been much speculation regarding the actual number of Hector's dolphins in the Kaikoura area and it is hoped that this proposed project will give the Kaikoura community a better indication of how many dolphins there are here as well as a clearer understanding of their distribution and habitat.
The information gathered will aid the institute to develop a Hector's dolphin sightings database that can be viewed, and added to online by interested people.
Institute spokeswoman and research director, Jody Weir, said that the Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute is extremely pleased to have the funding approved for this project.
"This is an excellent opportunity for Kaikoura," she said. "Hector's dolphins are only found in New Zealand and their close relatives, who live around the North Island, the Maui's dolphins, are in serious trouble.
"We are very excited to work with the local community, the schools, Encounter Kaikoura and other marine tour operators to bring together the story of Kaikoura's Hector's dolphins. Together we can find ways to protect these important marine residents for many years to come."
Chairman of coastal marine guardian group Te Korowai o Te Tai o Marokura, Larnce Wichman, said these "treasured little marine mammals" are very important to Kaikoura.
"Not only are they a fundamental part of the Kaikoura marine eco-systems, they are also a big tourist drawcard," Larnce said, "but unfortunately the use of gill-nets and purse seine fishing methods have hit the population badly over time. Thankfully the coastal Set Net Exclusion Zone has been in place now for just on four years and this, along with other in-shore fishing protections, have offered considerable support for dolphin populations."
The results of the research will give all interested parties in the Kaikoura marine environment authoritative scientific information enabling robust decisions to be made on fisheries management and environmental protections into the future.
Once collected and processed, the information will be made available online. The institute will create a website where anyone can report their sightings, view the catalogue and the sightings maps.
A hard-copy of the Kaikoura Hector's dolphin catalogue will be made available to the area's tour operators, interested schools and community groups, and three bi-monthly updates on the project will be presented to interested members of the Kaikoura community at Encounter Kaikoura, raising more awareness to promote conservation and protection efforts for these tiny treasures.