Fears grow for Maui's dolphins after New Zealand government opens west coast block for oil and gas drilling

Documents reveal 3,000 square km of the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary have been signed off for exploration permits

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The Independent Online

The government in New Zealand has insisted the critically endangered Maui's dolphin is not at further risk after 3,000 square kilometres of the North Island's west coast were revealed to be listed for oil and gas drilling.

The West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary, home to the Maui's dolphin, was listed as part of a block of land signed off for sea and land oil and gas exploration in documents released to the Green Party, 3 News reports.

But the Conservation Minister Nick Smith insisted the block in question "is nowhere near where the Maui's live," after the issue was raised by Green Party co-leader Russel Norman.

He told Parliament on Wednesday: "There hasn't been a single observation of a Maui's dolphin, and the oil and gas industry hasn't been involved in a single Maui's dolphin incident in Taranaki over the past 40 years despite 23 wells being drilled."

The government signed off a block offer of sea and land in April. According to 3 News, the documents show the Department of Conservation highlighted that 3,000 square kilometres overlap into the sanctuary.

The Maui's dolphin is the world’s rarest and smallest dolphin. It is estimated that there are only 55 adult left off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island as their numbers continue to be threatened by fishing and disease.

Simon Bridges, the Minister of Energy and Resources, also defended signing off the area for drilling. "I think primarily once you go from exploration right through to production, you're not jeopardising the wildlife” he said on Tuesday.

But Mr Norman accused Mr Bridges of being happy “to kill some more” of the dolphins with oil exploration.

Conservation charity the WWF called for the government to do more after the debate broke out and accused it off placing the dolphins at a higher risk.

Peter Hardstaff, the head of campaigns for the charity, said: “We need to be doing more to save the last 55 Maui’s dolphins, not exposing them to further risks from seismic surveying for oil exploration.

"The government’s failure to fully protect Maui’s dolphins from net-fishing across their range is already putting them at risk of extinction, and this situation is made worse by opening up their habitat to seismic surveying and a greater chance of oil spills."