Protecting Hector’s – Akaroa Harbour’s taonga species

Department of Conservation —  09/03/2023

By Tom MacTavish, Department of Conservation – Ranger Marine Reserves 

A Hector’s Dolphin jumping in Akaroa Harbour 📷: Maria Jesus Valdes

Tucked on the south side of Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū (Banks Peninsula) is the peaceful and unique Akaroa Harbour, home to the world’s smallest, and one of New Zealand’s most at threat dolphin species, the Hector’s dolphin. 

DOC is working alongside local tour operators, Rūnanga, researchers and the regional council to study the impacts of cruise ships, dolphin tourism and general vessel traffic on the Hector’s dolphin in the Akaroa Harbour.  

This is the first blog in the ‘Protecting Hector’s’ series  – a deep dive into a collaborative research project trying to find out how we can coexist sustainably with this rare taonga species.  

“People protect what they love, they love what they understand, and they understand what they are taught.” – Jacques Cousteau

With these words the late Jacques Cousteau beautifully captured education’s role in marine conservation – people are more likely to advocate protection for our planet’s oceans and the taonga species within them if they’ve had a chance to directly experience and learn about them.

Enabling nature experiences

That sentiment is implicit in the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations 1992, which provides the Department of Conservation (DOC) with the power to issue marine mammal viewing and swimming permits to commercial marine tourism operators.  It is recognised that educational nature experiences can benefit conservation. 

So why have a permit system at all if commercial marine tourism operators are helping people understand and connect with nature if it benefits conservation?  Why regulate something that should be positive for our biodiversity? 

Dolphin interactions 

Like all of us, marine mammals must feed themselves, nurture their young, socialise, and have a bit of fun on a daily basis in order to survive and thrive.  For the endemic Hector’s dolphin in Akaroa Harbour, we know that some of that fun can often involve interacting harmlessly with swimmers, kayakers and boats.   

However, we also know through numerous scientific studies on marine mammal tourism around the world, that marine mammals’ desire and tolerance of interactions with boats and swimmers have their limits –   too many interactions for too long can impact marine mammals’ ability to fulfil their other needs. 

French Bay, Akaroa
Looking down on French Bay and the Akaroa township 📷: Russsel,P.

Introducing permits

Establishing a limit on how often commercial tourism can interact with a population of marine mammals on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis is therefore essential and it is the purpose of the permit system. 

Luckily, at Akaroa, the marine mammal tourism operators recognise their reliance on a thriving local population of Hector’s dolphins. Over the past five years they have been working with DOC to help establish appropriate local limits on permits and the management of vessel traffic in general. This began with the establishment of a moratorium in 2016, which effectively placed a 10 year ‘freeze’ on the issuing of any new/further expansion of permits at Akaroa.   

The moratorium document then specified that DOC would continue to work with the industry across those 10 years to consider: 

  • the current state of Hector’s dolphins at Banks Peninsula 
  • what impact any vessel traffic may be having on those dolphins  
  • and what management measures may be taken to ensure that Hector’s dolphins continue to thrive in Akaroa Harbour. 
Hector's dolphins & boat
Hector’s dolphins swimming in front of a dolphin watching boat 📷: Shappard, Brian

How have DOC and the industry sought to establish appropriate limits at Akaroa? 

The ‘Protecting Hector’s’ blog series will see University of Otago Marine Science MSc graduate Will Carome delve into his mahi with Akaroa’s permitted marine mammal operators and the DOC to tackle this tricky question.     

In addition to Will’s expertise and dedication, there has been a huge collaborative effort to conceive the research, collect and collate data, and then consider what it may mean. Special thanks to the DOC permit holders; Akaroa Dolphins, Black Cat Cruises, Ecoseaker and Ōnuku Dolphin Swimming, Fox II Sailing, Pōhatu Penguins and Ōnuku Rūnanga for their ongoing input. 

Will’s research considers both long-term and short-term relationships between commercial tourism operators, cruise ships, vessel traffic in general, and Hector’s dolphins at Akaroa Harbour. The research is part of a wider University of Otago project that has been funded by the Department of Conservation through a cost recovery levy from the Akaroa permitted marine mammal operators.   

Stay tuned for Will’s first blog setting the scene for the situation in Akaroa and how he has drawn on one of the longest running marine mammal monitoring datasets in the world. 

Read more about the vulnerable Hector’s dolphin here.

2 responses to Protecting Hector’s – Akaroa Harbour’s taonga species


    Excellent to hear, you are doing very important work. Look forward to following along.

    joseph roehl 15/03/2023 at 11:20 am