A "small but symbolic" group of protesters stood at the entrance to Napier Port - in the distance, the faint outline of a ship, with 5400 cattle on board, could be seen.
The Yangtze Harmony, carrying the largest shipment of live cattle in two years, departed around midday yesterday for China.
New Zealand routinely exports breeding cattle overseas, shipping 27,306 in 2017, and 17,319 last year, but the process has earned the ire of animal rights activists in recent years.
The protest, organised by Save Animals from Exploitation (Safe), drew around 100 people, all armed with signs, and their voices they say were being used for those animals who cannot speak for themselves.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) approved the application despite the Government ordering a review into the live export trade in June.
The review, ordered by Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, came after ABC News exposed the plight of New Zealand cows suffering and dying in Sri Lanka.
MPI's director of animal health & welfare, veterinarian, Doctor Chris Rodwell was in Napier to oversee the final pre-export process for yesterday's shipment and inspected the conditions of the purpose-built facilities on the cattle ship. He said it met strict animal welfare requirements.
"We were satisfied with the facilities on the vessel and the level of attention paid to the animals' welfare was in line with our expectations and the requirements of the act," Rodwell said.
The export of cattle for breeding is a regulated activity under the Animal Welfare Act, with several stages of requirements that must be met before an export can proceed.
The country banned live export for slaughter 15 years ago.
Livestock ship taking up to 4000 cattle from NZ to China
MPI approves live export of 5400 cattle from Napier to China
"Importantly, animals are not exported for slaughter, but are used for breeding purposes to help develop the dairy and livestock industries in receiving countries," he said.
Safe campaigns officer Mona Oliver says MPI could have refused the shipment and it should put a halt on live exports while the review is under way.
She said China, "like most countries we export to", has lower animal welfare standards than New Zealand.
"Once animals leave our shores, we have no control over their welfare in the destination country. These cows are likely to end up in concrete factory farms and ultimately be slaughtered by methods so cruel they are prohibited in New Zealand."
Oliver said the history of the live export trade has been plagued with animal welfare disasters and "caring Kiwis" want it to end.
Kate and Sophie Jones were among those advocating for the animals' rights and said protesting "was better than not doing anything".
Kate, 20, was "overwhelmed" when speaking to Hawke's Bay Today.
"It's quite scary knowing that behind us there are cows being boarded up on a ship for two weeks that probably won't even make it."
Oliver said animals face "harrowing journeys" on board live export ships.
"The cows are confined in small pens. When waves slam the ships, these vulnerable animals can get thrown around. These cows suffer for days, even weeks on end."
Heidi Nobel travelled from Wellington specifically for the protest and was joined by her sister Rosa and her two young children. She said her journey to the region was "nothing compared to the long and scary journey [the cows] are making".
While she would've liked to stop the export, she hopes it will make people more aware.
"Often it is not until after an event that change starts to happen."
Rodwell said he understands the issue of live animal exports is one people feel strongly about.
He said the Minister of Agriculture has clearly signalled that a number of options are being considered, including a conditional ban on the process.
"In the meantime, any applications to export must meet tough requirements around the welfare of animals, and our focus is firmly on ensuring exported animals are well cared for, before, during and after export."
He said MPI strengthened animal welfare requirements on exporters earlier this year, with further changes under way.
"In May we required two additional veterinarians to attend the loading of any shipment to support the MPI certifying vet at the port and provide extra assurance that our rigorous pre-export process was followed.
"And as a condition of the export certification, exporters were also required to provide a report on the condition of the animals 30 days after their arrival at their destination.
"This was in addition to the usual voyage reports that must be provided when the vessel unloads.
"We will review all these reports and if standards have not been met throughout the journey and on arrival, this will result in the refusal of future applications or extra conditions being imposed."
In a further move, MPI is now considering a mandatory requirement for a veterinarian to accompany animals on all future shipments. Currently experienced stock handlers can tend the animals on the voyage.
"While MPI does not have ongoing jurisdiction over the care of exported livestock after they reach their destination, we will now seek further information and evidence from exporters to obtain greater assurance that the animals' welfare will be provided for on arrival and beyond. If this assurance is not provided, an export certificate will not be provided."
A petition by Safe to prohibit the export of live animals to countries with lower animal welfare, transport and slaughter standards than New Zealand has already garnered 15,000 signatures.