The world's smallest dolphin, found only off the coast of New Zealand, could disappear within 15 years unless efforts are taken to bring the critically endangered animal back from the brink of extinction. In what they deem a "loud wake-up call," researchers at German conservation group NABU say 43 to 47 of the 5-feet long Maui's dolphins remain, including just 10 to 12 mature females, the New Zealand Herald reports; that's down 97% since the 1970s. In a study presented to the International Whaling Commission, they argue the dolphin—a subspecies of Hector's dolphin that inhabits shallow coastal waters off New Zealand's North Island—is in dire need of protection, particularly from fishing nets, and call for a fishing ban across the animal's entire habitat rather than in specific areas, reports the BBC.
New Zealand has placed restrictions on gillnets, drift nets, and trawling, as well as seabed mining and acoustic seismic survey work in certain areas of the dolphin’s habitat. Gillnet restrictions were extended in 2012 and 2013. However, researchers say fishing still kills about five Maui's dolphins each year. New Zealand must abandon "its current stance, which places the interests of the fishing industry above biodiversity conservation, and finally protect the dolphins' habitat from harmful fishing nets, seismic airgun blasts, and oil and gas extraction," a researcher says. Otherwise, the dolphin's extinction is ''a matter of when, not if." Researchers say there were 111 Maui's dolphins in 2004 and 59 four years ago. Without human-caused deaths, their numbers could climb to 500 in 87 years, the study says. (This northern white rhino is the last male of his kind.)