Protecting Hector’s – Where to next? 

Department of Conservation —  02/06/2023
Hector’s dolphin mother and calf surfacing for air. 📷: Will Carome 

This is the fifth 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.

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 in the Akaroa Harbour.

Researcher Will Carome wraps up his research with some questions for future management to inform the next steps in protecting this unique dolphin.

Group of Hector's dolphins
Group of Hector’s dolphins surfacing for air. 📷: Will Carome 

If you’ve been following along, you will now know that the distribution of Hector’s dolphins at Akaroa Harbour shifted during the last decade, which correlated with a dramatic increase in cruise ship visits. You will also have learnt that you can measure boat traffic with an automated camera and that these dolphins were detected less often when more boats were on the harbour.

This research was made possible by a coordinated effort between researchers, managers, and dolphin tourism operators.

Achieving sound management will come from continued communication and collaboration between these stakeholders and the local community. 

How can we best respond for the dolphins and the harbour? 

Everyone recognizes that it is in our collective interest that Hector’s dolphins thrive within Akaroa Harbour. So, with signs suggesting that levels of boat traffic and tourism had grown beyond what was sustainable at Akaroa prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I made a set of research-based recommendations. The hope was that these recommendations would catalyse discussion between managers, rūnanga, researchers and industry on ways of meaningfully reducing the impact of vessel traffic on Hector’s dolphins. These included limiting both the size and number of cruise ships, as well as dolphin tourism, to levels that existed prior to the 2011 – 2012 Canterbury earthquakes.

Where does change come from? 

Our research and management recommendations have been the focus of a series of productive hui between dolphin tourism operators, managers from Environment Canterbury and the Department of Conservation, and researchers. These hui have demonstrated the value of learning together, building relationships, and sharing ideas to improve the understanding and application of science.  While appropriate levels of dolphin tourism in the harbour have been a key part of the discussions, there has also been a general recognition that we need to keep learning together and consider a range of management actions to minimise the impact of vessel traffic in Akaroa Harbour. For example, there have now been wider conversations about the future of cruise ship tourism at Akaroa, which has led to new restrictions and a commitment to conduct further environmental assessment, including high-resolution surveys of the seafloor around anchorages. Meaningful change is rooted in collective and collaborative efforts; it comes from all of us.

Cruise ship in Akaroa Harbour
Cruise ship in Akaroa Harbour. 📷: Will Carome 

Looking backwards (and elsewhere) while moving forward 

Aotearoa New Zealand has been at the forefront of research on the relationship between dolphins and tourism for over three decades. What can we learn from this wealth of knowledge and how we’ve responded in the past?

Looking north to a population of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands, we can draw parallels to research findings and reflect on past management decisions. There, a shifting distribution was the first sign of a long-term impact on the population, followed by observations of decline in calf survival.

As at Akaroa, research revealed that boats and swimmers were altering the short-term behaviour more than a decade before long-term effects were observed. Pleas for intervention led to the recent banning of swimming with dolphins, stricter limits on interactions between vessels and dolphins, as well as area-based speed restrictions for all boats.

Should similar restrictions be considered at Akaroa and how easy would they be to enforce? 

While the COVID-19 pandemic presented many hardships, it also provided  us with an opportunity to rethink and reframe the ways in which we choose to share Aotearoa’s vibrant and wondrous natural environment with our visitors.

Importantly, incorporation of mātauranga Māori can enrich our understanding of the full spectrum of our impact on the ocean and aid in creating solutions that best preserve Aotearoa’s unique marine biological heritage.

We have been given time to pause and consider, to collect and analyse data, to share ideas, and work together toward changes that we hope will promote the holistic interests of humans and wildlife.

Hector's dolphins jumping
Pair of Hector’s dolphins jumping. 📷: Tom Brough, NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust.

Read the Protecting Hector’s blog series here.

One response to Protecting Hector’s – Where to next? 


    Let’s implement what we know:
    1. Ban swim with dolphins in Akaroa.
    2. Reduce visits by cruise ships; and ensure these have low emissions.