A United States court has temporarily stopped seafood imports from New Zealand which have been caught in Māui dolphin habitat to help protect the critically endangered species.
The United States Court of International Trade overnight granted a preliminary injunction to halt imports of nine fish species from inshore trawling and gillnet fisheries off the West Coast of the North Island.
It came after conservation group Sea Shepherd New Zealand and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society asked the court in Manhattan to ban the trade, arguing there was a lack of action by the New Zealand Government to protect the dolphins only found in New Zealand waters.
Recent estimates show just 48 to 64 individual dolphins over the age of 1-year-old remain.
The US Government and several agencies, including the US Department of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service, US Department of the Treasury and Department of Homeland Security were listed as defendants in the case.
The New Zealand Government was listed as a defendant-intervenor, a non-party to the case which will provide information and support where required.
Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker was approached for comment about the decision by the Herald and deferred questions to Fisheries New Zealand as part of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
MPI’s manager of international fisheries management, James Brown, said: “We are working through the decision, but understand there will be a hearing next month to hear further arguments.”
He said MPI will work with exporters to identify and divert potentially affected product.
The nine fish species included in the court’s injunction are, snapper, tarakihi, spotted dogfish, trevally, warehou, hoki, barracouta, mullet, and gurnard.
The import ban will remain in place until the US makes a valid finding that New Zealand’s regulatory programme for the fisheries is comparable in effectiveness to the American regulatory programme or until the case is resolved.
Green Party oceans and fisheries spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said the decision shows the New Zealand Government needs to do more to protect Māui dolphins.
“The first step the Government should take in the wake of this decision is to phase out trawling and set netting throughout all Māui dolphin habitat and range on the North Island’s West Coast,” Sage said.
“The court decision highlights that New Zealand’s Marine Mammal Protection Act is weaker than its US equivalent.”
Brown, however, defended government action and said New Zealand has “put in place comprehensive measures to protect Māui dolphins which have been based on the best available scientific information and extensive consultation with New Zealanders.”
He said because of the “extensive restrictions” New Zealand has already to protect Māui dolphins, MPI anticipated the temporary stop to trade will affect a relatively small portion, less than $2 million per year, of overall fisheries trade to the US.
Sage said unlike in the US, however, there is no requirement in New Zealand to reduce the number of accidental deaths or injuries of marine mammals from commercial fishing.
“The review of the Threat Management Plan for Māui and Hector’s dolphins last term doubled the size of our marine mammal sanctuaries and extended the area where dolphins were safe from set netting and trawl netting,” she said.
“But as this court decision shows, we need to do more to ensure that our Māui dolphins are able to thrive. The Government needs to act to phase out trawling and set netting throughout the entire Māui dolphin habitat to protect dolphins and market access for seafood exports.”
In a statement, Sea Shepherd said the ban specifically applies to set-net and trawl fisheries operating in Māui dolphin habitat.
It said it brought the case because set-net and trawl fisheries which overlap with Māui dolphin habitat result in injury and death in excess of United States standards.
“This is a victory for independent science, which, in this case clearly demonstrated the technology used by the fisheries at issue – indiscriminate set nets and trawls – were putting the endangered Māui dolphin at greater risk of extinction,” managing director of Sea Shepherd New Zealand Michael Lawry said.
“We’re happy the Court of International Trade recognised the urgency of this situation for the Māui dolphin and agreed with us that an import ban was legally required.”
Pritam Singh, the chairman of the board and CEO of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, added that the court’s ruling sends a “strong signal” to New Zealand and other countries that unless they can show their fisheries regulatory programme is comparable to the US regulatory programme, they risk an import ban.
“The court found we are likely to succeed on two of our legal claims and that a preliminary import ban for these nine species was in the public interest. We agree.”
Greenpeace Aotearoa oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper said the NZ fishing industry was “now going to pay a price” after what she described as “years of recklessly endangering a rare indigenous dolphin”.
“This win by Sea Shepherd is damning for New Zealand’s fishing industry and an indictment on the New Zealand Government for not taking stronger action to protect the Māui dolphin,” Hooper said.
“We need to see more action by the Labour Government to curtail the harm done by the fishing industry, from pushing Māui dolphins to extinction to destroying ancient coral habitats on seamounts with bottom trawling nets.”