Find out about our role in marine mammal conservation including our responsibilities in whale and dolphin watching, whale strandings and accidental catch of marine mammals in fishing.

The Department of Conservation administers the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, which provides for the conservation, protection and management of marine mammals. A permit is required under the Act for anyone to "take" a marine mammal. The definition of "take" includes actions that harm, harass, injure and attract.

The Act provides for the establishment of marine mammal sanctuaries, within which activities known to harm particular marine mammal species can be restricted and strictly controlled by the Minister of Conservation.

There are six marine mammal sanctuaries in New Zealand Five to protect Hector’s dolphin; West Coast North Island, Clifford and Cloudy Bay, Banks Peninsula, Catlins Coast and Te Waewae Bay, and one  at the Auckland Islands to protect the main breeding areas of the New Zealand sea lion and the southern right whale.

The Act also provides for the implementation of population management plans to limit the level of fishing-related mortality for any marine mammal species.

The Department of Conservation Marine Mammal Action Plan 2005 - 2010 guides and prioritises the Department's marine mammal work.

Whale and dolphin watching

The Department administers the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations 1992, developed to manage the rapidly growing whale and dolphin-watching industry. These establish a public procedure for applying for permits to conduct passengers to view marine mammals and prescribe appropriate behaviour for all boats (and aircraft) in their vicinity.

A major research programme has been undertaken, assessing the impact of tourist vessels on the behaviour of sperm whales and dusky dolphins at Kaikoura and bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands. Future programmes will be funded through research levies charged to passengers.


New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of whale strandings. The Department is responsible for dealing with beached whales. Thanks to considerable public support, including trained volunteers from groups such as Project Jonah, New Zealand is recognised as a world leader in successful whale rescues.

Unfortunately, not all stranded whales are able to be rescued. The Department liaises with iwi over use of cultural materials such as whale bone and provides skeletal material to the Museum of New Zealand and other approved institutions. Tissue samples are taken from dead stranded whales for analysis at the University of Auckland. These studies provide valuable background information on the health of marine mammals and our oceans.

DOC attending to a pod of stranded pilot whale, Farewell Spit. Photo: Diana Parr.
DOC attending to a pod of stranded pilot whales, Farewell Spit

Fisheries interactions

The development of the commercial fisheries resource in New Zealand has resulted in the incidental take (by-catch) of a number of marine mammal species. For example, it has been estimated that in some years over one thousand fur seals have drowned in trawl fisheries for hoki, hake and southern blue whiting. It is a requirement under the Act to report all events whereby a marine mammal is incidentally caught in the act of fishing.

Concern over the incidental take of rare New Zealand (Hooker's) sea lion in the Auckland Islands squid trawl fishery led to the establishment of the Auckland Islands marine mammal sanctuary, creating a no-fishing zone within a 12-mile radius of the islands. A by-catch limit has been set by the Minister of Fisheries. In past years, the squid fishery has been closed because the by-catch limit was exceeded.

Cetaceans are also impacted by fishing operations, most notably the entanglement of Hector's dolphin in coastal set nets. Fishing, particularly set net fishing, is the greatest known human threat to Hector’s and Māui dolphin where a cause of death is known. The Banks Peninsula marine mammal sanctuary, established in 1988, protects dolphins from set net entanglement.

On the 1st of October 2008 new fishing prohibitions and restrictions came into place as a part of the Hector’s and Māui dolphin Threat Management Plan (TMP) coordinated by DOC and the Ministry of Fisheries. These prohibitions and restrictions aim to manage the effects of fishing-related mortality on Hector’s and Māui dolphin and apply to both commercial and recreational fishers and effect set netting, trawling, and drift netting. See the Ministry of Fisheries website for a full description of the aforementioned prohibitions and restrictions.

Since 1995, the New Zealand government has been implementing a scheme to recover from the domestic commercial fishing industry a proportion of funding required to investigate and mitigate the impacts of fishing on protected species of marine wildlife (Conservation Services). The Minister of Conservation can require the production of population management plans. These can include the setting of maximum-allowable levels of fishing-related mortality for threatened species.

International obligations

New Zealand, a 1946 founding member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), when there was an active domestic whaling industry, is now regarded as one of the staunchest advocates of whale conservation. The Department of Conservation was a strong supporter of the Commission's establishment in 1994 of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which includes the entire New Zealand exclusive economic zone south of 40°S. The Department leads New Zealand's participation at the IWC's Scientific Committee and is represented on the New Zealand delegation to the meetings of the Commission.

The Department provides advice and, where necessary, representation at meetings of international conventions with an interest in marine mammals, such as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

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