Conservationists have issued repeated warnings that the Maui's dolphins of New Zealand, the planet's smallest species of dolphin, are in danger of extinction. This month, they've estimated there are only about 55 surviving members left, according to an updated survey of the species' population.
The last time the Maui's dolphin population was surveyed was in 2005. At that time, there were 111 of the species left, according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation.
Experts say the population decline corresponds to a rise in commercial fishing.
"Every day the animals are exposed to gill and trawl nets carries a risk we can't afford. If ever there was a time to act, it is now," Dr. Barbara Maas, international head of the Nature and Biodiversity Union's International Species Conservation division," said in a statement.
Maas said that the Maui's dolphin population takes years to recover from a large drop in numbers because the species can't breed until they are 7 to 9-years-old and then only have one calf every 2-4 years. That doesn't bode well for a population increasingly bombarded by marine tourism, coastal development, pollution, oil spills and garbage.
In response the rapidly declining Maui's numbers, a team of scientists has proposed a "Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans" that they hope can be passed into law, the Daily Mail reports.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference in Vancouver earlier this year, a coalition of experts in philosophy, conservation and animal behavior argued that dolphins and whales experiences similar levels of awareness and self-consciousness to humans and therefore deserve similar rights on an international level.
Whether or not that law passes, experts who spoke with the Daily Mail said that it's still possible for the Maui's population to recover if New Zealand bans nets over a larger area of the coastline and sets up a sanctuary, which the government has agreed to consider.
In the meantime, time is running for out for the critically endangered animals.
"We are staring down the barrel of extinction of this sub-species," marine biologist Dr. Rochelle Constantine told the New Zealand Daily Herald.
Watch the World Wildlife Foundation's report on the Maui dolphin below: