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US court bans NZ fish imports caught in Māui dolphin habitat


Last month the United States Court of International Trade issued a preliminary injunction on the export of New Zealand seafood caught in Māui dolphin habitat.

This ruling is a big win for the critically endangered species, as the export ban applies to nine species of fish caught by trawling and gillnet fisheries off the West Coast of the North Island.

“Currently there are an estimated 48-64 Māui dolphins left in Aotearoa’s waters. These small dolphins are particularly vulnerable to human activities as they live close to the coast and occasionally visit some harbours,” explains Gemma Coutts, OSOF’s policy coordinator. “Due to this, they can get entangled in commercial and recreational fisheries, like set nets, and drown, or are struck by boats or propellers.”

In 2020, Sea Shepherd brought the case against the US Government and several agencies including the US Department of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service, US Department of the Treasury and the US Department of Homeland Security. The Government of New Zealand was listed as a defendant-intervenor.

The lawsuit centred on the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bans imports from fisheries that do not have similar levels of protection for marine mammals compared to the United States. Judge Katzmann found that the protections in place for the Māui dolphin by the New Zealand Government fell short of being ‘comparable’ to US standards. This ruling shows the weakness of the risk model employed by the Ministry of Primary Industries to make dolphin protection decisions.

“What this decision says is that internationally, Aotearoa is dropping the ball when it comes to ocean conservation,” says Coutts. “The United States doesn’t want our export because it hasn’t been harvested sustainably or ethically and places an already vulnerable species at further risk.”

“It’s embarrassing and should be a wake up call to the New Zealand Government that we have to do more for our ocean species.”

Although this lawsuit was filed prior to the release of proposed updates to the Māui and Hector’s dolphin Threat Management Plan, the measures taken still fall short of adequate protections required to protect the Māui dolphin. For example, the current bans on trawling and set net fishing in place are limited and mainly in shallow areas.

“We should not be fishing in Māui dolphin habitat,” states Coutts. “Set net fishing and trawling in and around Māui dolphin habitats should be phased out – Māui dolphin numbers aren’t improving and something needs to be done.”

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