Drones used to help save last 63 Māui dolphins

By Taroi Black

An unusual collaboration today launched an artificial intelligence drone to spy on habitat use, population and reproduction of the world’s most endangered dolphin, with the aim of saving it.

WWF-New Zealand is leading the drone project, developed by scientists and technology experts to find and follow Māui dolphins, while helping to fill critical science gaps on their movements and their way of life, marine mammal expert and MĀUI63 co-founder Dr Rochelle Constantine says.

“We  don’t have a robust understanding about Māui dolphin distribution particularly during winter months and at different times of the day and night. We don’t know how often dolphins use some areas that fishers are operating in, which is where there could be remaining risk of entanglement.”

The pilot is being run jointly by WWF, the government, MĀUI63 and fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford. Normally population assessments take three weeks a year to research the dolphins' distribution. However, the new high-tech drone can  follow the Māui dolphins at any time.  

Could be 'lost forever'

Building this science could mean the difference between extinction and survival, WWF-New Zealand CEO Livia Esterhazy says. “With only about 63 Māui dolphins left, lack of data about where Māui dolphins swim and how they use their habitat is simply no longer acceptable. "

“If we don’t remove all the threats they face and protect the right places, and Māui dolphins become entangled in fishing gear, or are harmed by seismic surveying, we could lose them forever. Their population is that critical.”

It’s not just about building science, she says, but also about finding new ways to take action.

“We are out of time for status quo conservation approaches, so we are paving a new path," Esterhazy says.

"By breaking historical roadblocks between industry, environmental NGOs and government, we can work together to create the best outcomes for Māui dolphins. The drone has been a catalyst for this collaboration."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attended the launch at The Maritime Room in Auckland today.