Introduction

A dead Hector’s dolphin was discovered last Friday 18 February at a beach near Mikonui, south of Hokitika, by a member of the public.

Date:  24 February 2022

Department of Conservation (DOC) Aquatic Director Elizabeth Heeg says the adult dolphin appeared to have died recently. It was too early to say what had caused its death but its tail end was missing and there was some evidence of shark bite.

“DOC staff members collected the dolphin and froze it over the weekend so it can be sent to Massey University this week. A necropsy will be done to try to find out how it died, including the possible cause of the missing tail end,” she says.

“From necropsies done by the Massey team, we can glean really valuable information about these species and the threats they face.”

Elizabeth Heeg says further information received will be uploaded to DOC’s Hector’s and Māui dolphin incident database and to the DOC website during the next scheduled update in early May. 

The database records incidents involving Hector’s and Māui dolphins, based on reported events. These include live stranded animals, dolphins found dead on beaches, injured at sea, found floating dead in the ocean, or caught as part of recreational or commercial fishing. This data is shared online, along with any necropsy reports, on a quarterly basis.

“Sadly, this is the ninth Hector’s dolphin found dead around the South Island since early November 2021,” Elizabeth Heeg says.

Seven of these were calves. A very decomposed and scavenged Māui dolphin was also found at Muriwai on Christmas Day but was not collected. Six of the dolphins were frozen and sent to Massey University.

“They are gradually being thawed and examined by the pathologist. We’ve received results from necropsies on two calves, but a definite diagnosis wasn’t possible due to decomposition levels,” she says.

“Maternal separation has been cited as the possible cause of death of those two calves. Young calves can die when they are separated from their mothers, for example during storm conditions. This can be considered as a potential cause of death for all young calves but there is no reliable way of confirming this diagnosis.”

The other dolphins collected since November are still under investigation. Results will be shared on the DOC website when available.

“The information from the necropsies will help us build our understanding of Hector’s and Māui dolphins and help with future planning for marine protection and management,” Elizabeth Heeg says.

She thanked the member of the public who reported the find. “When people are quick to alert us to discoveries of dead dolphins, it increases the volume and value of the information we can obtain.

“We urge anyone finding a dead Hector’s or Māui dolphin to report it to DOC via 0800 DOC HOT. It is also important for the public to report live sightings via the DOC webpage, or the hotline.”

Other information

Hector’s dolphins are the world’s smallest dolphin species, with adults measuring about 1.5m long.

Identifiable through their distinctive round dorsal fins, Hector’s dolphins’ bodies are grey with black and white markings. The population is estimated to be around 15,000 and they are classified as Nationally Vulnerable in the National Threat Classification System.

Hector’s and Māui dolphin bodies are routinely sent to Massey University for necropsy to obtain information such as cause of death (when this can be determined), including examination for disease. Information on the sex, body condition and other biological information is also recorded. The level of decomposition of a dolphin carcass, and whether it has been frozen, are key factors in how much information can be determined.

The work to protect both Hector’s and Māui dolphins is guided by the Hector’s and Māui Dolphins Threat Management Plan.

Contact

For media enquiries contact:

Email: media@doc.govt.nz

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