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Twice as many Hector's dolphins as thought

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 4/08/2016

There may be twice as many of the endangered Hector's dolphin in New Zealand waters as previously thought - but it's no reason to stop worrying, new research says.

A three-year study from Nelson's Cawthron Institute for the Ministry for Primary Industries has found there could be between 12,000 to 18,500 of the marine mammals left.

That compares to previous best estimates of about 7000.

At 50kg and 1.5m long, Hector's are the world's smallest dolphins, and despite the boost in reported numbers, still one of the rarest.

"While the numbers are reassuring, just because there are more of them it doesn't mean they're okay they are still at risk," project lead Deanna Clement said.

She said trawling and set nets were still the biggest threat to the species.

The study was the largest aerial marine survey ever conducted in New Zealand and covered an area of about 75,000 square kilometres twice - a total about the size of the South Island.

The scale of the survey meant scientists were able to find large numbers of the dolphins - previously thought to be a mainly inshore species - significantly further out at sea.

"While there had been unconfirmed sightings as far out as 15 to 16 nautical miles offshore, up till now it had been difficult to accurately survey that far out to sea in New Zealand," Dr Clement said.

The research was carried out as part of the government's upcoming review of the Hector's dolphin Threat Management Plan, which was originally set up in 2008.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry says a large study of the Maui dolphin population has also been carried out and will be published in October.

"If new information on threats to either species emerge, the government could bring the TMP review forward if needed," she said.

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