The New Zealand dolphins are in danger of extinction in the very near future. World Champion freediver Will Trubridge wants to change that.
Will Trubridge holds 15 world records in freediving, an extreme sport that requires divers to breath-hold into the abyss. He’s the first human to reach a depth of 100 meters without fins, rope, weight or any other assistance, and he’s won the World Absolute Freediver prize twice. His life is busy with competitions in Europe and his own elite freediving freediving school, Vertical Blue, in Long Island, the Bahamas. Yet he makes time to advocate internationally for New Zealand’s critically endangered Maui’s dolphin because he’s appalled at the circumstances that are causing its imminent yet avoidable extinction.
Trubridge grew up in New Zealand, where the powerful fishing industry’s gill net fishing and trawling threaten to kill off the nation’s only indigenous dolphin. With a population that has plummeted from 2,000 in 1970 to 55 today, New Zealand’s Maui’s dolphin is a poster child for what the fishing industry considers “bycatch.” The dolphins get caught in the fishing nets and drown, and New Zealand’s lax fishing regulations have allowed nearly the entire population to be killed off. But even in the face of local and global citizen outrage, New Zealand refuses to extend protective measures.
Maui’s dolphins are a sub-species of Hector’s dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world. “They’re intelligent, friendly and beautiful, and they only live in New Zealand,” Trubridge says. “Under existing laws, the species will be extinct by 2030, and the New Zealand government is apathetic if not downright anti-ecological.”
Zoe Helene: You’re passionate about helping the Hector and Maui’s dolphins.
William Trubridge: I had only a vague idea about New Zealand dolphins until I was planning Project Hector, a one hectometer (100 meters) mission dive that was also intended to raise awareness about the species’ plight and compel the government to protect them. They’re classified as “critically endangered,” and they face a real and present danger of being driven extinct. We can’t afford to lose a single one.
ZH: When did they start keeping track?
WT: 1970—and since then the Hector’s dolphin populations have dropped from 30,000 to just over 7,000. That’s more than 75 percent. It’s even worse for Maui’s; in 1970 there were 2,000, and today there are only 55.
ZH: And this is mostly because of fishing practices?
WT: Yes. They’re “bycatch,” a euphemism for killed accidentally. They get caught in nets by fishermen who are after something else.
Dolphins breathe oxygen just like we do, so when they get caught in those nets they have about three minutes of terror before they drown. They’re very intelligent, so during that time any other dolphins around would be screaming for help. Sometimes other members of the pod try to help them, and then sometimes they get caught and drown, too.
ZH: Do you ever think about a dolphin trapped in a net and how it might experience drowning?
WT: I do, definitely. In spite of how comfortable and at home I am under water, the idea of being trapped in a net or a cave or something like that is still a huge nightmare for me. The panic would just be awful, and I don’t think there would be any difference for a dolphin. A dolphin would also experience those sorts of sensations and that sort of panic. It’s a terrible thought to imagine Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins—and other dolphins all over the world—being caught in gill nets and drowning.
ZH: And the government knows about this.
WT: The New Zealand government has known that the species is in rapid decline for at least 30 years, yet still they allow both commercial and recreational gill nets and trawlers to be used within the dolphin’s territory.
ZH: Is the New Zealand government doing anything to protect them?
WT: There’ve been small gains for their protection, but nothing really significant and nothing that solves the problem. The current biological projection is still extinction under existing laws. The current government is so apathetic about anything ecological. The types of comments they make about this issue or other environmental issues like fracking or drilling for oil in the ocean clearly show how little they care. They certainly are not motivated by the intrinsic good of protecting a species.
ZH: Shocking! What motivates the New Zealand government?
WT: Finances. Money. If we can prove that it is actually more profitable financially to protect the Maui’s dolphin than to allow it be rendered extinct for the sake of cheaper fish n’ chips, then maybe the species has a chance.
ZH: I recently visited New Zealand after many years. I felt betrayed that I had grown up there and hadn’t even heard of either the Maui’s or Hector’s dolphin. It’s almost like the government is repressing their existence because it doesn’t want to admit to the crisis or do the right thing to protect it.
WT: A lot of what we’re doing is calling them out about that. I watched an interview with Prime Minister John Key by a very prominent British reporter who pretty much called him out the entire interview about the “100 Percent Pure” New Zealand tourism advertising campaign.
ZH: You mean the “Come to New Zealand where we’re progressively environmental and everything is protected and pristine” green-washing campaign?
WT: Right. And the truth is, New Zealand’s rivers are contaminated, vast areas are deforested and topsoil is eroded, plus a lot of other environmentally devastating things are taking place.
ZH: As the poster child for “bycatch,” the Maui’s dolphin is caught up in an ethical as much as an environmental crisis, then?
WT: Very much so—and it’s a race against time. Unless the New Zealand government bans all use of gill nets and trawling, within the full territory of the species as defined by expert scientists, the Maui’s dolphin will be the first species of marine dolphin to be rendered extinct due to human causes. This would set a tragic and shameful precedent.
ZH: How do you feel, as a New Zealander and a professional freediver?
WT: I feel a great sense of urgency. The Maui’s dolphin’s demise is not a complex problem, and there is scientific unanimity on the cause of the problem, which could be resolved by a simple change in policy—literally a swipe of the pen.
ZH: New Zealand already ranks high in the extinction conversation. The Moa and Hast Eagle are two of the most infamous examples of “co-extinction” by human cause. Extinction of the Maui’s dolphin would only strengthen New Zealand’s existing reputation, and it isn’t reversible infamy. You would think they’d take this more seriously.
WT: I hope they know the world is watching.
ZH: It is just never OK to kill dolphins, let alone wipe out an entire species—let alone your own indigenous dolphin.
WT: I completely agree.
ZH: So, what can we do?
WT: The greatest power we have as global consumers is to vote with our voices and our choices. If you were considering visiting New Zealand on holiday, I would encourage you to speak up for the Maui’s dolphin to anyone associated with your travel plans. I’d even encourage you to consider choosing some other country where the government is actively preserving the environment and wildlife rather than continuing to engage in activities that put them at serious risk. And if you decided not to visit New Zealand for these reasons, then make sure to tell the government and whatever relevant bodies that you’ve made this decision because of their poor practices. Let them know it cost them money, because that seems to be all they’re interested in.
ZH: It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time to get to New Zealand. If they destroy what they have, why would anyone bother to go there? Who would you ask people to write?
WT: There are various options [see “Resources” below] for sending emails to the New Zealand government, and the more personalized those messages are, the better. That shows that there is diversity from overseas. It’s important to send the ministers strong messages to make sure that they know that you’re not visiting New Zealand or buying New Zealand goods because you want to see the dolphins fully protected.
ZH: People will come to New Zealand to see the smallest and most rare dolphin in the world!
WT: Right. People will either come to see them or they will not come to New Zealand because we haven’t protected our dolphin.
ZH: Should we boycott New Zealand seafood?
WT: Maui’s dolphins live in a limited geographical region, but you can’t say to someone, “Don’t buy New Zealand taki that’s been fished off the West Coast between such and such and so and so,” which are places they’ve probably never heard of. That’s impossible. So you have to just say, “Do not buy New Zealand seafood.”
It’s not a kind of thing where you can keep everyone happy or avoid collateral damage, but the priority has to be saving a species, and scientifically appropriate measures need to be put into place immediately.
ZH: Which NGO would be your first NGO choice for readers who want to send monetary support?
WT: NABU International is easily the organization that has committed the most to this. Barbara Mass, head of International Species Conservation with NABU, has been to all the International Whaling Commission (www.iwc.int) meetings and single-handedly ensured that the text was decisive enough in recommendations to the New Zealand government. Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Slooten, a premier Maui’s dolphin scientist, has done all the research in the past decades, and Barbara has spearheaded the campaign to protect them in the last one.
ZH: The New Zealand national election is coming up on September 20 (2014), and this is a critical moment for the dolphins and New Zealand’s environmental protection overall. Prime Minister John Key of the National Party consistently chooses money over wildlife and wilderness, and that focus has made him blind to the bigger picture of New Zealand’s future. The Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins can’t afford to have him in power again. Do you think the Green Party has a chance?
WT: The Greens won’t ever be the party with the biggest percentage, but New Zealand has a mixed-member proportional representative government system, meaning all the parties are represented to the degree that they were voted for, and a Labour-Green alliance could potentially beat National.
ZH: Barbara Mass was instrumental in helping me understand the core issues and key players when I first learned about the Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins. Like us, she will never give up!
WT: To support the New Zealand dolphins, the greatest bang for your buck would come from NABU. All money donated to NABU’s Mau’s Dolphin Go Fund Me campaign goes to support the dolphins.
To learn more about the Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphin, check out Dolphins Down Under: Understanding the New Zealand Dolphin (Otago University Press, 2013), co-authored by Dr. Elisabeth “Liz” Slooten and Dr. Steve Dawson, scientific partners who have intensely studied New Zealand’s only endemic dolphins for more than 30 years.
Support the Maui’s dolphin by donating to NABU International or join the Facebook group Hector’s and Maui’s Dolphin SOS.
Photos of William freediving are by Daan Verhoeven (DaanverHoeven.com)
Photos of New Zealand Dolphins are by Steve Dawson (WhaleDolphinTrust.org.nz)
Zoe Helene is a media correspondent and advocate for women, wildlife and wilderness. She spent 10 influential years growing up in Aotearoa, the Maori word for New Zealand, which means The Land of the Long White Cloud. Zoe works with leading activists, scientists and environmental organizations across the globe to save species such as the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin and endangered Hector’s dolphin from extinction. Hector’s and Maui’s are New Zealand’s only native dolphins. Zoe, like the native Maori, considers them taonga, a treasure to protect and cherish.
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