Why doesn’t New Zealand protect its national dolphin?

Wednesday, 15 Feb, 2023

Currently, nine species of fish usually exported to the US from the west coast of Te Ika-a-Māui (north island of New Zealand / Aotearoa) are on their import banned list. This is to protect US consumers from unwittingly contributing to the demise of the world’s rarest marine dolphin, the Māui dolphin that lives there. Sea Shepherd New Zealand Director Michael Lawry asks, "Why doesn’t NZ protect its national dolphin and why did the US just ban our seafood?"

There are an estimated 48 to 64 Māui dolphin left. They are literally just hanging on. So how did ‘clean green’ New Zealand end up in this situation? Maybe NZ is closer to a banana republic than many of us would like to think? Not the green wild haven that is pimped out to the rest of the world. Sometimes it seems like the only thing “sustainable” is the marketing BS.

I’ve been asked quite a few times how dare we question the NZ commercial fishing industry, even on our own social media pages! The industry has old money and a lot of political power. For the last decade the president of one of the two main political parties was also a long time director in one of the country’s “big three” fishing companies. During the Covid pandemic when industries such as horticulture couldn’t get any overseas workers in to help with harvesting, goods rotted. What did the fishing industry do? They commissioned aircraft and flew crew in from Russia, with Covid. It’s almost like they are running a parallel economy to the rest of us. Bluntly put, until now the NZ fishing industry has always got its own way. Successive governments have either willingly made this situation worse or they appear scared, almost paralyzed and unable to rein the industry in. When meagre progress is made, litigation is often used against the Crown (NZ Government) to force them to back off. Ironic much?

For 10 years the IWC and IUCN have been telling us we need to protect Maui and their parent species, Pahu (Hector’s) across their entire habitat range. That’s out to the 100 metre depth contour or approximately 20nm (37km). Seems simple enough? So we decided to bring this court action to protect the dolphin and finally get an independent assessment of the industry and the “Maui dolphin problem”, outside the industry’s realm of influence.

The case hinges on the United States’ powerful Marine Mammal Protection Act. Simply put, if any country exporting fish to the US does not have comparable marine mammal protection regulations in place, it’s a "no, we don’t want your seafood". Countries have been warned about this possibility since 2017 and they had until 2022-2023 to comply.

After years of massive legal work, complex reports from our expert scientists and statements from our crew, we won a preliminary injunction at the end of November 2022. The NZ government then tried to delay the ban with a stay motion until the end of January 2023. The industry argued they needed time to put a traceability system in place. Which is basically saying they are struggling to prove if that fish is actually from Maui habitat or not. Tricky. This can only be described as seriously bad management and increases the exports affected from the official estimate of $2m to $200m. Both sides again presented their arguments; our lawyers, now led by Earthrise (Lewis & Clark Law School, Oregon), won and the ban remains in place.

We still haven’t got to the full court case and maybe we never will. Maybe NOAA (National Marine Fisheries Service, informally known as NOAA Fisheries) will convince NZ to put in place marine mammal protection that’s comparable to the US. Maybe the NZ government will fully protect Hector’s and Maui dolphins, so that there’s no need for a fish export ban. Depending on what happens next, we either continue with our legal action, or our legal action is no longer required. Job done.

What does this mean for other counties and other marine mammals? Well when Scotland was faced with a similar ban, same US regulations, they decided to protect their £179m salmon industry into the States by banning the shooting of seals around their salmon farms. New Zealand meanwhile, due to the arrogance of the fishing industry continues to leave themselves wide open to further legal action. What about our endangered NZ Sea Lions killed in the squid fisheries around the Auckland Islands? Or Maui’s cousin, Pahu (Hector’s) in Te Waipounamu (South Island) and fish exports from their habitat? Unless NZ makes some real change we may even witness this ban moving into other regions like the EU. After all, the US regulators have done all the hard work. Are Australian consumers happy with eating snapper caught in trawl nets from Maui habitat? Do they even know?

Since the legal win we have been asked by a few oddly exasperated people, just what exactly do we want!? Their bizarre reasoning appears to be: well there’s not many left now so what are the chances of actually catching one? Just because there are now less Maui doesn’t mean we can carry on fishing in their habitat. Sure some more data from drones or conservation vessels is always great but we can no longer be monitoring them into extinction. Well, not without financial penalty or having our collective ‘clean green’ face rubbed in it.

Read more: "Court bans import of fish from New Zealand fisheries to protect Māui dolphin"

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