WELLINGTON (REUTERS) - New Zealand's government said on Friday (Feb 26) that it was backing a new project that uses drone technology to understand and protect the endangered Maui dolphins in the country.
Maui dolphins live in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island and current estimates suggest that only 63 dolphins older than one year remain, raising concerns that they may soon become extinct.
The new Maui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries, non-profit wildlife technology organisation MAUI63 and WWF-New Zealand.
The unmanned aerial vehicle is capable of finding and tracking Maui dolphins using artificial intelligence.
The technology has the potential to compile detailed data on the habitats, population size, distribution and behaviour of the dolphins, along with many other types of marine species such as other dolphins, seabirds, and whales, officials said.
"There has been, unfortunately for many years, disputes over how to best protect Maui dolphins," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after announcing the initiative, adding that the government has stepped in to fund the project and help protect the dolphins. "But we need everyone to come together."
Fishing companies Moana New Zealand and Sanford Limited are also supporting the project. The government has already moved to restrict fishing around the areas Maui dolphins frequent.
"By advancing our understanding of how Maui dolphins behave during the day and throughout the year, this project will help us ensure the measures our government has already put in place to protect our Maui dolphins are robust and appropriate," said Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker.
The drone ensures dolphins remain undisturbed as they fly at an altitude of over 120m.