New Zealand government plans to open endangered dolphins sanctuary for oil drilling

BY Robert Pursell  June 18, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Critics are worried that New Zealand’s decision to drill for oil in protected marine reserves could spell disaster for the world’s rarest marine mammal, the Maui’s dolphin. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Earthrace Conservation.

Critics are worried that New Zealand’s decision to drill for oil in protected marine reserves could spell disaster for the world’s rarest marine mammal, the Maui’s dolphin. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Earthrace Conservation.

Despite pressures from international bodies to increase its conservation efforts, the New Zealand government has decided to open more than 3,000 square kilometers of an endangered marine wildlife preserve for oil drilling.

Last April, the country’s ruling party — the National Party — signed a block offer to allow for the gas and oil exploration of over 400,000 square kilometers of the country’s land and sea area, the largest such offer in New Zealand history. Tuesday, through documents obtained under the country’s Official Information Act, New Zealand’s Green Party announced that the National Party did so despite the knowledge that over 3,000 square kilometers of this offering overlap with the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary, which plays home to the world’s rarest marine mammal, the Maui’s dolphin.

This news comes in the face of mounting calls for New Zealand to better protect the Maui’s dolphin, whose total population is believed to be less than 60. In May, the International Whaling Commission released a report detailing the extreme threat of extinction facing the Maui’s dolphin, found only in the waters off New Zealand, and calling on New Zealand to curb fishing in its habitat to ensure the species’ survival. A few weeks later, the World Wildlife Fund joined the International Whaling Commission in critiquing New Zealand’s conservation efforts.

“WWF is urging the New Zealand government to heed the advice of the world’s leading scientists and ensure the survival of the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin through the full protection of the coastline they inhabit,” the WWF stated in it’s May 22nd release. “Maui’s dolphins are only found in New Zealand. With time running out to save the species, both the survival of Maui’s dolphin and New Zealand’s international reputation are on the line.”

Yet in spite of these criticisms, government officials aren’t worried about adverse effects on the Maui’s dolphin population.

“I think primarily once you go from exploration right through to production, you’re not jeopardizing the wildlife,” said Simon Bridges, New Zealand’s Minister of Energy and Resources. “There has been petroleum exploration in that area for a long period of time. I think it’s about achieving a balance.”

Those assurances, however, aren’t enough for many Kiwis.

“The International Whaling Commission is calling for even greater protections for Maui’s dolphins. This National Government is putting these beautiful dolphins at greater risk of extinction,”said Russel Norman, co-leader of the country’s Green Party. “The Government should stop putting the short-term interest of a few mining companies ahead of the thousands and thousands of New Zealanders who love and want to protect the endangered Maui’s dolphin.”

The news of New Zealand’s plans came, ironically, on the same day that President Barack Obama announced his plans to use an executive order to create the world’s largest protected marine area in the South Pacific Ocean.