Crown cleared of Māui's dolphin treaty breach

6:48 pm on 2 May 2016

The Crown's plan to protect the critically endangered Māui's dolphin doesn't breach the Treaty of Waitangi, a new report has found.

Maui's dolphin.

Maui's dolphin. Photo: Earthrace Conservation/Liz Slooten (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The world's smallest dolphin is also one of New Zealand's most endangered species, with only about 55 adults thought to be left.

In a report released today, the Waitangi Tribunal said the dolphin was a taonga but the Crown had done nothing wrong in its policy to look after it.

The report concerns the claims of two North Island coastal hapū: Ngāti Te Wehi and Ngāti Tahinga, who are based in and around Aotea Harbour in western Waikato.

The hapū had argued the Crown's threat management plan for the mammals did not give due regard to their interests as kaitiaki (guardians).

They said the plan failed to adequately protect the dolphin from likely extinction.

The tribunal agreed the dolphin's endangered status meant it was a taonga, and the hapū's interests as kaitiaki therefore deserved the Crown's active protection under the treaty.

However, the tribunal said they were unable to conclude that the Crown's processes lacked good faith or were unreasonable.

Because the species was endangered, the Crown was entitled to consider wider economic, social and cultural considerations in deciding its 2013 Threat Management Plan (TMP), it added.

While the Crown was obliged to take into account the dolphin's importance as a taonga to Māori, the Crown also owed treaty duties to Māori with fishing interests in the dolphin's habitat.

"Whether the Crown's 2013 TMP will arrest the decline in population sufficiently to avoid extinction is in doubt," the report said.

"But the principal treaty interest of the claimants is as kaitiaki of the dolphin, rather than in the [status of the] dolphin itself.

"Although the treaty promises that the Crown will actively protect taonga, and by extension the kaitaiki relationship, in the circumstances before us it does not guarantee the survival of a species, particularly where there are competing treaty rights that need to be carefully balanced."

View the tribunal's report (PDF, 979KB)