Dairy company Fonterra has deflected a high-profile protest over its palm kernel imports, but Greenpeace says growing local and international discontent with the palm oil industry will force it into a turnaround.

The ship East Ambition began unloading its cargo of Indonesian palm kernel animal feed yesterday after protesters had been cut free from the ship's cranes, arrested, and bailed. But protests continued outside Ports of Tauranga gates, with some New Zealand farmers weighing into the argument against importing the feed.

Greenpeace New Zealand said several maize and grain farmers had offered donations and support for the protest, saying their product had been undercut by cheap imports.

"We've had farmers who say they've never donated to Greenpeace but want to now because they are going out of business," said spokesperson Suzette Jackson.

Greenpeace supporters wore orang-utan and tiger costumes in their protest, drawing attention to the lost habitat of endangered species as a result of the deforestation caused by the palm oil industry.

Fonterra and Federated Farmers have remained firm in defending their imports, saying the palm kernel extract (PKE) comes from sustainable farms and they are utilising a by-product. New Zealand imports 1.1 million tonnes of palm kernel a year as a supplementary feed for dairy cows.

Federated Farmers has called for the activists to be charged as pirates, calling their protest a "dangerous publicity stunt" and "economic treason".

But the 14 protesters, charged with unlawful boarding of a ship, are likely to be fined up to $2000 when they appear in Tauranga District Court on Wednesday.

Protester Dom Zapata, who was cut from the anchor chain of the ship, said despite "some hairy moments" no one's life was ever at risk.

The 28-year-old from Tauranga said the fine and potential criminal record were "part and parcel" of the protest. "I'm aware I have committed a crime, but there is a bigger crime happening in the environmental impact of Fonterra's imports," he told the Herald.

John Lea, chief executive of Fonterra's rural merchandising wing RD1, said considerable effort had been made to ensure the feed brought to New Zealand did not destroy rainforests.

But a recent World Wildlife Fund report showed that Wilmar, the company RD1 sourced its PKE from, owned 81,000 hectares of palm oil plantations on former rainforest land. Climate campaigner Simon Boxer said Fonterra would be internationally embarrassed if it continued to source the product.