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Our marine birds and mammals

Top issue – native marine birds and mammals are threatened with extinction

We do not know the overall state of New Zealand’s marine biodiversity, because there is limited population data for many marine organisms. This leaves some big gaps in our understanding of the state of non-commercial fish species, plants, algae, and other marine wildlife. However, there are relatively good data on marine birds and most marine mammals.

More than one-third of our native species and subspecies of seabirds, more than half of shorebirds, and more than one-quarter of marine mammals – including albatrosses, penguins, herons, dolphins, and whales – are threatened with extinction. This classification has the highest risk of extinction (see Appendix 1: New Zealand Threat Classification System).

The fragile state of some of our wildlife is in part due to historic pressures when people viewed these animals as resources, game, or pests. For marine birds, present-day pressures include the loss or modification of breeding habitats, predators, and fishing bycatch. For marine mammals, pressures include bycatch, ship strike, pollution, habitat modification, and competition for food from commercial fishing.

The specific impacts of losing species on New Zealand’s wider marine ecosystems – including a high proportion of a particular group such as seabirds – are poorly understood. However, there may be consequential impacts on other species and the resilience of ecosystems.

These animals are taonga (treasures) for Māori. Their extinction would be a tangible loss for people who are inspired by, or have a spiritual connection to our marine wildlife, and their decline undermines Māori exercising of kaitiakitanga (guardianship).

Our marine fauna is of international interest and importance. Nearly half the world’s whale, dolphin, and porpoise species are found in our waters. Nearly one-quarter of the world’s seabird species breed in New Zealand – and we have the highest number of endemic seabird species (found only here) in the world.

Key findings

Ninety percent of our seabird and shorebird species or subspecies are threatened with, or at risk of, extinction

  • Of the 92 indigenous seabird species and subspecies that breed in New Zealand, 32 (35 percent) are classified as threatened with extinction and 51 (55 percent) are at risk of extinction (see Appendix 1: New Zealand Threat Classification System). Of the 32 species and subspecies threatened with extinction, 12 are nationally critical, facing an extremely high risk of extinction, including species of albatross, shag, petrel, and penguin.
  • Nine percent (8 of 92) of our indigenous seabird species and subspecies have had an increased risk of extinction since 2008; the risk decreased for only one species over the same period.
  • Of the 14 indigenous shorebird species and subspecies that breed in New Zealand, eight (57 percent) are classified as threatened with extinction and four (29 percent) are at risk of extinction. There has been no change in conservation status of shorebirds since 2008.

More than one-quarter of marine mammal species or subspecies are threatened with extinction

  • Of the 29 indigenous marine mammal species and subspecies that breed in New Zealand, eight (28 percent) are classified as threatened with extinction:
    • five are nationally critical, facing an extremely high risk of extinction – Bryde’s whale, Māui dolphin, New Zealand sea lion, orca, and southern elephant seal
    • two are nationally endangered, facing a high risk of extinction – Hector’s dolphin and bottlenose dolphin
    • southern right whale’s conservation status has improved since 2008 due to a population increase but is still classified as nationally vulnerable.

Fishing bycatch is decreasing but is still a pressure on protected marine life

  • Some of our rarest native albatross, shearwater, and petrel species are at a high or very high risk of death from bycatch – when they are caught and killed in fishing gear. The estimated total number of seabirds killed from commercial bycatch has decreased since 2003. Other pressures, for example, loss of nesting habitat, have not been quantified.
  • The number of New Zealand sea lions and fur seals injured or killed as commercial bycatch has decreased since 1995. From 1921 to 2015, commercial and recreational bycatch was the main identified cause of death of Hector’s and Māui dolphins; however, bycatch numbers have decreased over the last decade. Other pressures on marine mammals have not been quantified.