Dr. Elisabeth Slooten is the Hope Spot Champion for the New Zealand Coastal Waters Hope Spot and professor at the University of Otago. She was a recipient of the Charles Fleming Award for environmental achievement from the Royal Society of New Zealand and has dedicated much of her work to endangered cetaceans in the waters around New Zealand – specifically Hector’s and Maui dolphins, sperm whales and right whales.
MB: How has partnering with Mission Blue helped in achieving your goals for the Hope Spot?
ES: Becoming a Mission Blue Hope Spot has directly applied a huge international spotlight on New Zealand, putting pressure on the government to ban gill net trawling to protect the endangered Hector’s and Māui dolphins in our waters. Mission Blue has been enormously helpful in drawing their international audience to sign our petition to ban the use of gill nets– we received more than 130,000 signatures!
MB: When the Hope Spot was announced in 2018, there were around 50 Māui dolphins remaining. Has there been progress toward ensuring their survival?
ES: The rate of decline has slowed, thanks to partial protection. However, the population is still declining, and by the time a population gets this small, it becomes very difficult to detect trends. The Māui dolphins would need full protection to reverse this. The sooner they can recover to 100 individuals, then 200, then 300, the better. Until there are around 500 Māui dolphins, we will all be biting our fingernails hoping we don’t lose them.
The New Zealand Coastal Waters Hope Spot is comprised of 17,000km (about 10,565 miles) of New Zealand’s widely divergent coastal waters, but the linchpin of Mission Blue’s goal here is tightly focused: to help achieve a critical policy change banning the use of gillnets and trawling—notoriously wasteful and damaging fishing practices—in the habitats of two unique species of dolphins, Hector’s and Māui.
When this Hope Spot was declared in late 2018, the German environmental group NABU International had already been working on the initiative for ten years. The Hector’s and Māui dolphins are the only cetaceans native to New Zealand’s waters, and their populations have been severely depleted—largely due to becoming bycatch in gillnets and trawling practices. By 2018 only 50–55 Māui dolphins remained, and the Hector’s population had declined by over 70% relative to numbers reported in the 1970’s, to around 10,000.
These endangered dolphins wouldn’t be the only marine life to benefit from the adoption of rules preventing use of gillnets and trawling in designated coastal waters. Such unsustainable fishing practices are common in many areas of the global ocean, with large numbers of marine animals and sea birds lost as a result. And even if such volume-heavy practices were to result in the harvest of only their intended catch, overfishing is itself endemic.
New Zealand Coastal Waters has two Hope Spot champions—Dr. Elisabeth Slooten and Dr. Barbara Maas. Dr. Slooten is a professor in the Department of Marine Science at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and Dr. Maas is the Head of Endangered Species Conservation at NABU International. Dr. Slooten recently talked with Mission Blue about this initiative.