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US court orders ban on NZ seafood exports in Mui dolphin case

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A US court has ordered an immediate ban on New Zealand exports of snapper, tarakihi, spotted dogfish, trevally, warehou, hoki, barracouta, mullet, and gurnard from the inshore trawl fishery and inshore gillnet fishery off the west coast of the North Island.
Conservation group Sea Shepherd had asked the US Court of International Trade to bring in a ban, arguing a lack of action by the New Zealand government to protect critically endangered Mui dolphins. There are only around 50 left.

Under US law, an import ban can kick in if the court agrees a country is not applying similar protections to those in place in their waters.

Sea Shepherd filed the lawsuit in 2020, against the US Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, NOAA Fisheries, and the Treasury Department. The New Zealand government joined the US defendants in fighting the case.

READ MORE:
* Only 54 Mui dolphins remain, leaked Department of Conservation report shows
* How New Zealand's 63 Mui dolphins hold the key to a $263m export market
* US seafood ban plan causes stir in NZ



A judge in the New York court ruled in Sea Shepherd's favour on Tuesday morning (NZT), issuing an injunction on those exports.

The ban could cost up to $2m a year in exports of fish from Mui habitat.

But it is likely the US will require a traceability programme - and if New Zealand can't prove where fish were caught that could cost $200m worth of exports.

The ruling is also a rejection of a controversial risk model adopted by the Ministry of Primary Industries to make dolphin protection decisions. Both the International Whaling Commission and International Union for the Conservation of Nature have asked for much stronger protection measures.

Sea Shepherd New Zealands managing director Michael Lawry said they were happy the Court of International Trade recognised the urgency of the situation.

Iain McGregor/Stuff
The dolphins the worlds smallest are found on the west coast of the North Island from Maunganui Bluff to Whanganui.

This is a victory ... clearly demonstrated the technology used by the fisheries at issue indiscriminate set nets and trawls were putting the endangered Mui dolphin at greater risk of extinction, he said.

Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker referred questions to the Ministry for Primary Industries.

James Brown, MPIs manager of international fisheries management, said the stop was temporary.

We are working through the decision, but understand there will be a hearing next month to hear further arguments, he said. The United States government is the defendant in the matter and New Zealand will provide information and support where required.

Brown said New Zealand has put in place comprehensive measures to protect the dolphins. These were based on the best available scientific information and extensive consultation with New Zealanders, he said. In the meantime, we will work with exporters to identify and divert potentially affected product.

SEA SHEPHERD/Supplied
Maui dolphins seen off Manukau Heads.

Green Party fisheries and conservation spokesperson Eugenie Sage said the court decision that the Marine Mammal Protection Act is much weaker than its US equivalent.

There is no requirement for a take reduction plan and effective action to reduce fisheries impacts and ensure that the Mui dolphin population can recover within a defined period, she said.

The [decision] tells us what we have known for decades. Our law and controls on fisheries bycatch of protected species are inadequate to protect precious Mui dolphins from extinction, she said.

Reform of the 44-year-old legislation already slated as part of a conservation law reform package will be too slow to help the dolphin species, she said.


There is no question that the Government needs to step up and take immediate action to better protect Mui dolphins. It can do this by phasing out trawling and set netting throughout all of their habitat on the North Islands West Coast.

Greenpeace Aotearoa oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper said the verdict was damning for New Zealands fishing industry.

"After years of recklessly endangering a rare indigenous dolphin, the New Zealand fishing industry is now going to pay a price, she said. Its chicken feed compared to the price paid by Mui dolphins.

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