Catch 22 for the last 55 Maui dolphins

By Tracy Brighten  September 2014

The set net ban zone will only be extended if Maui dolphins are seen beyond the protected area, but the chance of seeing dolphins is slim while habitat is unprotected

NZ dolphins in gillnet

The campaign to save the critically endangered Maui, endemic to New Zealand, has escalated into an international affair. While environmental groups, marine scientists, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the New Zealand seafood industry are caught in a blame game, with the Department of Conservation mediating, cause of dolphin death is crucial.

DoC sends all Maui and Hector’s dolphins that are intact enough for analysis to Massey University, where Veterinary Pathologist Dr Wendi Roe performs the post-mortems.

As Roe dissects a savoury muffin, her lunch between meetings, she apologises before getting straight into the discussion on post-mortems.   Roe acknowledges the difficulty in identifying bycatch victims.

“There’s nothing specific, that you can say ‘that animal has drowned in a fishing net’… there’s nothing you can see, no test that you can do, that is 100 percent diagnostic of drowning.”

Even if a dolphin is caught in a net, Roe makes sure there is no other explanation.

Roe is reflective. “When you see them come in they’re beautiful, and they’re intact, and that’s sad.” But she doesn’t get emotional about them. “As a species, yes, but not individuals.”

When a dolphin is on the table, Roe has a job to do.

As a pathologist, she’s interested in how they died. Information gleaned from an individual helps prevent others from dying. In her office, she keeps files of dolphin reports on her bookshelf and a tall filing cabinet dominates the wall behind her. A wall map plots colour-coded sightings from Kaipara Harbour to Hawera.

The Maui is a sub-species of the Hector’s dolphin that inhabits South Island. Up to 1.6m long, these tiny dolphins with distinct rounded dorsal fin are among the world’s smallest, and with numbers estimated at only 55 adults over one year old, Maui dolphins are also the world’s rarest.

According to pathology reports held by DoC, dolphin W12-16Ch was a young female Hector’s; a bycatch victim with ‘encircling linear impressions (net marks) over her melon on both sides, and short linear lacerations on the leading edge of the right flipper,’ but an otherwise healthy dolphin.

Considering Maui and Hector’s biology – a female does not reach reproductive maturity until 7 to 9 years old, giving birth to one calf every 2 to 4 years – the loss of a female is significant to species’ survival, particularly Maui dolphins with only 20 breeding females left.

The number of dolphins dying in gillnets is likely to be underestimated. There is no incentive for fishermen to report bycatch, because they risk further protective measures that will affect their livelihood. Beachcast dolphins are generally reported by the public, but as Roe points out, beaches are not busy during winter months. Bodies may be quickly washed away by storms.

However, in the joint DoC and MPI 2012 Maui’s Dolphin Threat Assessment, fishing-related activities were nonetheless identified as the main threat, causing 95.5% of human-related mortalities. The remaining 4.5% was attributed to oil and mining activities, vessel traffic, pollution and disease.

Otago University marine experts Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson predict functional Maui extinction within two decades. The population can sustain one death in 10-23 years, yet the estimated death rate from bycatch alone is 3-4 per year.

Nylon gillnetting is so fine it is almost invisible, and dolphins become entangled. Interviewed by journalist Zoe Helene, Slooten describes what happens.

“A dolphin caught in a net struggles madly to try to escape. At the end of this struggle, the dolphin suffocates. It would take up to five minutes or so to die.”

Like humans, dolphins are social mammals. Slooten recalls, “We’ve seen one dolphin that had died in a gillnet that was covered in fresh toothrakes, many of which were bleeding. It seems that the other dolphins in the group tried to get this dolphin out of the net and failed.”

While acknowledging that the Maui’s dolphin Threat Management Plan revision in 2013 provides some extra protection from set nets, Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell wants more. “The set net ban needs to be extended to all regions where these nationally-critical Maui’s dolphins are found. That includes all harbours and offshore to the 100m depth contour.”

There is international support too. At the International Whaling Commission meeting in September, 26 countries voted for total protection of Maui dolphins from fishing-related threats.

But resistance is strong. New Zealand’s fifth largest export earner, the seafood industry is a dominant player in the conservation game. In January’s contribution to The Fishing Paper, Seafood New Zealand is critical of protection zones in the absence of sightings. “The government has brought in yet more fishing restrictions to protect the pods of phantom Maui’s said to be resident off the Taranaki coast.”

They argue that fishing has a temporary impact on the environment, unlike farming’s permanent impact. But extinction is permanent and dolphin numbers are decreasing as the debate continues.

While the prospect of Maui dolphin extinction is unthinkable, Roe is looking beyond Maui at Hector’s swimming in their wake.

Since the 2012 Threat Assessment, research led by Roe published in Veterinary Parasitology in 2013, identifies another threat. Roe examined Toxoplasma gondii infection in Hector’s and Maui dolphins received by Massey between 2007 and 2011. Toxoplasmosis was identified as the cause of death in 7 of 28 dolphins, including 2 of 3 Maui dolphins. Studies on other species have identified indirect effects on populations, through changes in behaviour, reproduction, and predation risk.

Roe has been frustrated by the slow acknowledgement of the role of disease in declining populations. She smiles and nods at the suggestion that her research hasn’t had as much publicity as bycatch research, and explains that a lot of the research on dolphins worldwide may be biased.

“There are lots of people who research because they want to prove that they’re all dying in the fishing industry, or they want to prove that none of them are dying in the fishing industry.”

Her research was initially seen to excuse the fishing industry by directing the focus away from fishing-related mortality towards toxoplasmosis as the killer.

Roe points out that her findings relate only to dolphins washed up on the beach. She supports scientists’ findings on fishing impacts, but is keen to see disease mortality included in population modelling.

“I strongly believe we need to have strict controls on fishing zones and fishing nets, but the situation is even more important than we thought, because there’s more than one thing killing them.” Roe’s voice is soft, but authoritative.

When asked about Government attitude to Maui extinction, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy is clear in his written response. “Our position is that if there are sightings beyond the protected area then we will review the boundaries, but in 900 fishing trips, there have been no observations of Maui dolphins in these areas.”

The observer program on commercial fishing boats leaving Taranaki is well-intentioned, but watching murky coastal waters for tiny dolphins must require uninterrupted concentration and 20/20 vision.

Barbara Maas, NABU International’s Head of Endangered Species Conservation, criticises economic-driven decisions on protection zones that “reflect fishing interests rather than match Maui’s dolphin distribution.” Maas recently told Agence France-Press that having exhausted the scientific arguments, NABU, supported by 100 conservation groups, is proposing a boycott of New Zealand seafood.

Roe is not interested in extremist action, but believes collaboration is key to Maui and Hector’s dolphin conservation. She is involved in the Maui’s dolphin Research Advisory Group, a DoC and MPI initiative that held its first meeting last June. Including representatives from central government, regional councils, the fishing industry, environmental groups, scientific researchers, and iwi, the aim is to inform Maui conservation decisions through further research and population monitoring.

Roe’s current research is to identify how toxoplasma gondii is transmitted to dolphins. The most likely route into the marine environment is via contamination of fresh-water run-off. Oocysts, or spores, carrying the parasite and shed in cat faeces can contaminate coastal waters via feral cat populations, and storm water via domestic cat populations. Hector’s and Maui dolphins forage in harbours and estuaries and could ingest oocysts from water, or from eating fish and squid.

Declining to speculate about Maui survival, Roe sees their plight as a warning for Hector’s.

“I’m probably a little bit back-to-front on this,” she says, believing resources are best directed at looking after those there are more of.

It may be too late for Maui dolphins with our Government fixed in its position on protection zones like the set nets trapping them, but their endangered relative, Hector’s, could pull through.

“There are lots of lessons we can learn about what we should be doing now. It would be nice to react before there are 55 left.”

Note: DoC now uses “Maui”, but “Maui’s” has been preserved in quotes, document and group names

Image credit: S. Dawson (from NABU International website)

Feature Writing

Thank you to Dr Elizabeth Gray for excellent tutorials on business writing, and editing and publishing that have helped me to revise my writing for clarity, conciseness, and accuracy.

Spreading the Word

By Tracy Brighten 2012

A profile of volunteer Sylvia Durrant who has been caring for sick and injured birds on Auckland’s North Shore for over twenty years

Sylvia Durrant

Sylvia with orphaned cygnet

White hair swept off her face and gold-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, Sylvia Durrant, known as the ‘bird lady’, greets me with her generous smile. At once, she engages me in animated conversation about her work and the patients in her care today.

Bird volunteer for over twenty years

Sylvia has been caring for sick and injured birds on Auckland’s North Shore for the past twenty years, since responding to a newspaper advert asking for volunteers to care for baby blackbirds. Sylvia knew little about birds then, but as a retired nurse caring for her disabled husband, she had plenty of time on her hands.

I first met Sylvia in 2006. My daughter started helping her for a few hours each week, and would return full of enthusiasm, re-telling Sylvia’s stories. A bird enthusiast myself, I couldn’t wait to meet her. Sylvia left a deep imprint then and on other occasions when I had the pleasure of seeing her at work. I remain in awe of a modest lady with boundless energy and enthusiasm, even as she struts towards eighty.

Sylvia’s bird shelter in Rothesay Bay

Sylvia lives in a small house on a quiet street in North Shore’s Rothesay Bay. One side of her house is lined with bird cages of varying sizes with plastic covers ready for the Auckland downpours. At the back is the blue penguin enclosure, covered to replicate the darkness of a natural burrow. Step inside Sylvia’s side entrance and her laundry houses needy birds in rows of cages lined with off-cuts of sheets or towels.

In the sink, a pile of bowls and small pipettes wait to be washed. Residents at any time may include natives such as tuis, wood pigeons, kingfishers, fantails, silver-eyes, and Sylvia’s favourites, blue penguins. Swallows, sparrows, blackbirds and ducklings are also frequent patients, as well as the less common petrels, morepork, pukeko, and Australasian gannets.

Nursery for newly hatched orphans

Step through the garage into the hall and first right is the nursery for baby birds. Here Sylvia’s patients are tiny and fragile, some only days old, eyes shut and featherless. They snuggle in small baskets lined with paper towels and covered with cloth to keep them warm. A donated incubator is on hand for emergencies. During the breeding season from September to February, Sylvia can have up to a hundred and fifty birds; many are babies and she can work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

Feeding time

Sylvia shows me her kitchen where she prepares meals – chicken mash, beef strips, egg yolk, green peas, as well as chopped fruit and sugar water for the nectar lovers. She disappears momentarily – another bird has arrived. She reappears, hands cupped underneath her broad grin, “Another sparrow,” she says with childlike excitement.

Feeding the penguins is a no-nonsense affair. Sylvia kneels in the enclosure, a penguin gripped between her knees as she pops a succession of sprats in his beak. Hungry penguins can eat an astonishing $300 to $500 (4) of fish each week. As she returns to the nursery, I comment on her energy and she throws her head back and laughs as she recounts an amusing story.

Two boys found a bird and one suggested taking it to the ‘bird lady’. “’Is she still alive?’ the other asked. I’ve been around for so long you see“ (2). Then she skips across the room to catch an escapee with the nimbleness of a woman a fraction of her age and deftly holds three chicks at once as she feeds them with a pipette.

Sylvia’s canine assistant helps penguins

The birds are not Sylvia’s only companions. Her dog Misty is a “bird-dog” having been trained to help, particularly when the blue penguins have their swim. Take an early morning walk on Rothesay Bay beach, and you may see Sylvia and Misty encouraging their convalescing patients out of the carriers onto the rocks.

The “little blues” (2) are unsure at first, but are soon diving into the clear salty water that shimmers in the early morning sunlight. Sylvia and Misty look on and seem to enjoy the solitude. The rock pools provide a safe swimming hole, and if a penguin gets out before the end of the session to go for a wander, Misty gently licks it and it dives back into the water.

Sadly, blue penguins are ‘near threatened’ (6) and many become road victims when they come ashore at dusk to return to their nest sites in rocky burrows. Having glimpsed hundreds of these little birds swim ashore at Oamaru on the South Island and clamber up the rocks, the work of volunteers like Sylvia is brought into focus. Helping to keep up penguin numbers for breeding is so important for the long term survival of the species.

Wild release is the priority

Sylvia doesn’t get attached to the birds. Too much human contact wouldn’t prepare them for the wild and the release is the most important part, she says. But she’s not immune to the emotional response when releasing a bird; “everybody has a very good feeling for releasing birds” (1).

She recalls another story – about a man from Kaukapakapa who brought in a wood pigeon that had flown into a window and broken a wing.

“It took about three months to heal … and he’d ring me every week and say ’his mate comes and sits in the tree every day at the same time, its waiting’” (1). When the bird had recovered, the man released it and the next day he rang Sylvia. “’It was wonderful’ he said, ‘I got home, opened the box and it flew straight up into that tree and they flew off in a pair’, and he was really almost close to tears with delight that this had happened” (1).

Another man releases petrels for her, collecting them on his way home from work. His wife says that the best pleasure for him is to release these birds and see them flying away. “And that’s the most important thing because they’re wild birds… and they need to go back,” (1) Sylvia re-iterates, her smile replaced by a seriousness that demands my understanding.

It’s not always a pleasure though. In April 2006, a rare mass starvation of blue penguins along the Hauraki coast resulted in Sylvia caring for 140 sick birds in early summer compared to around 30 usually (7). Dogs off the leash can cause irreparable damage, but when asked what is the biggest problem facing local birds, Sylvia is in no doubt, “Cats, cats, cats and more cats“(1).

Cats are biggest problem for local birds  

New Zealanders are fond of their cats, but they can have a serious impact on bird populations in the breeding season when chicks are vulnerable. Sylvia has prepared an information sheet which she hands out to responsible cat owners (9). She is keen to help with education and is a regular speaker at Forest & Bird meetings, brownie groups and schools. Sometimes she takes along an ambassador if she has one – a penguin with injuries that would severely reduce its chances of survival in the wild, temporarily adopted until it can be re-homed in a zoo. 

Bird injuries are a learning curve

The most challenging part of Sylvia’s work is dealing with injuries because veterinarians don’t usually treat wild birds. She had a blue penguin with a deep gash across its back and the vet said it was impossible to stitch.

I got all the sand out of the wound… I put aloe vera jelly on it to heal it and just put a few zig-zag stitches in it to hold it so that when she moved, her back muscles wouldn’t just tear it again and then I bandaged her up, sent her swimming every day and it healed. Took three months but it healed… So that’s something else I learned, you see” (1).

Triumphant albatross release in the Hauraki Gulf

Sylvia is accustomed to overcoming obstacles. In 2006, a tired, hungry albatross was found in Silverdale, way off course from the Southern Ocean. Sylvia fattened him up with fish easily enough, but releasing this enormous bird was problematic. She was aware that an albatross needs either a very high cliff or very high seas to launch from.

“I rang a few fishing companies and asked, ‘have you got a boat going down to the Southern Ocean any time soon?’ And eventually I found one that was leaving from Nelson.” Sylvia asked DOC if they could take the bird to Nelson, but they told her to put the bird out in the harbour.

“The harbour’s not the place for an albatross, the Southern Ocean’s where he belongs,” (1) she told them, but they were uncooperative. Determined to give the albatross the best chance of survival, Sylvia rang Bill Hohepa, “the Maori fishing guy” (1) she had just seen on television. He said a storm was coming and that the coast guard at Browns Bay could take the albatross out past Rangitoto Island where the seas would be very high.

“Luckily the albatross was able to paddle up to the top of a huge wave, turn round and run down that wave and up the other side before taking off into the sky.“ Sylvia was very excited by that release, “there was a picture of him in the paper and when I stood up and held the bird, his one wing touched the floor and he was so beautiful. I loved having him” (1).

Perils of the bird catcher tree

Sylvia isn’t shy in voicing her opinion and she doesn’t seem to worry what people think about her as long as they listen. She recalls an incident where she wanted to educate gardeners about growing the sticky para para, or bird batcher tree, in their gardens. Sylvia took three little wax-eyes, “all messed up from being caught in that tree,” to a garden club. “‘Now all you people with gardens…’“ (1).

Sylvia’s manner reveals a woman who cares deeply about birds and wants to share her knowledge. She’s matter of fact, “New Zealand only has birds. We don’t have anything else so we have to protect the habitat of birds. And the only way to get this across is to talk to people” (1).

Queen’s Service Medal honour

In June 2007, Sylvia received national recognition when she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to wildlife. She accepted the award as recognition for all the bird rescue volunteers. Locals who have visited her at her Rothesay Bay home may not recognise her in the photograph receiving her medal from the Governor-General (8). She doesn’t have a bird in her hands!

Sylvia has appeared on television and in the North Shore Times, and although she doesn’t seek personal fame, she is aware of the benefits of public exposure. “I don’t mind how many times I’m interviewed or put in the paper because it’s spreading the word” (1).

Sylvia certainly has a growing congregation.

Image credit: Sylvia with orphaned cygnet by North Shore Times 


  1. Alex Brighten, recorded interview with Sylvia Durrant, June 2007.
  2. Tracy Brighten, conversations with Sylvia Durrant, November 2006, December 2007, December 2008, March 2009, February 2010.
  3. Leigh Van Der Stoep, “The Bird Lady is Making a Difference”, North Shore Times, May 2006,
  4. Forest and Bird ‘Te Karere’ newsletter, Issue number 94, October 2009,
  5. Department of Conservation
  6. New Zealand Penguin,
  7. Anne Beston, “Little blue penguins found dead in droves”, New Zealand Herald, April 29, 2006
  8. Governor General
  9. Sylvia Durrant’s information sheet for cat owners
  10. Stuff