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The New Zealand Government Wants to Allow Drilling for Oil in a Dolphin Habitat

Plans for oil and gas exploration are a death sentence for the world's smallest and rarest dolphin.
14 February 2015, 12:00am

The New Zealand Government has issued plans for oil and gas exploration in the habitat of the last 55 critically endangered Maui's dolphins in the world. Despite public protests, and stern words from Jane Goodall, the plans are in full swing with scientists calling it a death sentence for the animals.

The Maui is the world's smallest and rarest dolphin and only found off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. With a unique Mickey Mouse ear-shaped dorsal fin and white flame-like patterns along their sides, they look very different to conventional bottlenose dolphins. They communicate via clicks rather than the whistles of other breeds, but play with seaweed, blow bubbles, and surf waves like most dolphins. Rather than mating for life, they change partners often and only live 20 years—almost 30 years less than other species. Females also often only have one calf every two to three years which compounds any threat to the species. But according to 2015 Block Offers this hasn't prevented Austrian oil and gas giant OMV conducting seismic surveying in the area, despite it being protected by the West Coast Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

Seismic surveying is a process that detects the presence of oil or gas in the seabed. Air or water guns send out a sound which and are reflected off the seabed into a stream of acoustic receivers. The sound is believed to be not only deafening and terrifying for marine mammals like dolphins, but also disruptive to echolocation, which they rely on for communication and finding food.

The Minister of Energy and Resources, Simon Bridges, has rebuffed concerns for the animals saying, "I think primarily once you go from exploration right through to production, you're not jeopardising the wildlife." But Maui Dolphin expert Professor Liz Slooten of Otago University disagrees. She claims the Government is ignoring scientific evidence that shows drowning, migration, and death of marine mammals due to seismic surveying. Dolphins have been found to have drowned within 600 meters of surveyed areas.

Similar sites have also reported an 80 per cent reduction in catch rates of fish and major declines in squid populations. This further aggravates concerns over surviving dolphins ability to find food.

Professor Slooten continues, "With any breed, these factors are significant. But for the Maui's dolphin, they would be a death sentence." At the time of writing, Mr Bridges' Press Secretary declined comment.

Petroleum companies are acknowledging the risks, but only in the fine print. In OMV's own Environmental Impact Report, they note "Maui's' dolphins are susceptible to the effects of human-induced mortality" and "Marine mammals likely to be present in or on the boundary of the area of interest includes Maui's dolphin."

But while US oil and gas companies are required to do a full marine mammal survey before any seismic surveying can even take place, this requirement does not exist in New Zealand. Professor Slooten suggests that this allows Environmental Impact Assessments, such as OMV's, to "be of a very low scientific standard, based on anecdotal information rather than a proper marine mammal survey."

Disputes over reporting accuracy include the company's claim Maui's dolphins won't be near the site as they don't range further than four nautical miles offshore; but the animals have been sighted up to 20 nautical miles out to sea. They also suggest Maui's dolphins don't range further south than Oakura Beach, yet the government's own Expert Panel say the dolphin ranges south as far as Whanganui.

Greens MP Gareth Hughes feels that the New Zealand government needs to share the blame over the threat, claiming they're too interested in "gambling what might be, rather than protecting what is there". He suggests they abide by a "drill it, mine it, frack it" mentality.

But most worrying is that if seismic surveying is successful, drilling will likely follow. This brings with it a whole new range of environmental concerns. Controversial exploratory deep-sea drilling to 1600 meters already began last summer. With every meter drilled there's an ex ponential risk of a leak which further threatens marine life. Hughes stressed that any oil spill in New Zealand waters would be catastrophic, and it could take 100 days for assistance to arrive.

Both the Greens and scientists say there is a solution, but it requires immediate action. If the Mammal Sanctuary was extended and real marine mammal population assessments were conducted by all petroleum companies prior to exploration in Kiwi waters the Maui's dolphin may not join the Moa just yet.

Follow Caitlin on Twitter: @amongthenarciss

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