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US Court Decision a Possible Lifeline for Critically Endangered Maui Dolphin

Published: December 13, 2022
Māui dolphins off the coast of New Zealand. (Image: Martin Stanley/via Department of Conservation [NZ])

A small sea mammal whose only home is to be found in the harbours and off the seashore of New Zealand’s west coast, between Whanganui in the south to Maunganui in the north, may have been given a life line, thanks to a ruling handed down by a United States court.

United States Court of International Trade has banned the import of fish being caught in areas inhabited by the Maui dolphin. The small dolphin can only be found here, and is a by catch of fishermen netting and trawling for other fish.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Sea Shepherd New Zealand jointly brought the law suit to the court on the 22 November 2022, to help protect the critically endangered dolphins, whose numbers were recently estimated at only between 48 and 64 over the age of one year.

A statement released by Sea Shepherd said it brought its lawsuit action against the United States Department of Commerce under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This was because set-net and trawl fisheries overlapped with Maui dolphin habitat, resulting in injury and death to dolphins in excess of established United States standards. The preliminary import ban will remain in place until the United States makes a valid finding that New Zealand’s regulatory program for the fisheries is comparable in effectiveness to the U.S. regulatory program or until the court case is fully resolved.

“The Court’s ruling sends a strong signal to New Zealand and other countries that unless they can show their fisheries regulatory program is comparable to the U.S. regulatory program, they risk an import ban,” said Pritam Singh, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. “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.”

NIWA Scientific Assessment

Māui dolphins are one of the rarest and smallest dolphins in the world. They are only found on the west coast of the North Island in New Zealand. (Image: Laura Boren/Department of Conservation [NZ])

Maui dolphins are a closely-related sub-species of Hector’s dolphins, of which there are about 15,000 over one year left. The Hector’s dolphins are most abundant in the cloudy waters produced by sediments from the major glacial rivers in the South Island.

A 2019 scientific assessment of Hector’s and Maui dolphins has led to a revised understanding of their biology, their distribution and their main threats.

NIWA marine scientist Dr Jim Roberts led a team from NIWA, Massey University and Quantifish using new data and methods to assess the threats to New Zealand’s own dolphin species.

The 18-month scientific study has discovered that:

• The dolphins can breed earlier, live longer and are capable of faster population growth than previously thought, which makes them more resilient to human threats

• Scientists can accurately predict where they live using satellite data on seawater turbidity (cloudiness) and the distribution of their main prey

• The importance of non-fishery threats had been underestimated, including the parasite causing toxoplasmosis.

Being able to determine where the Hector’s and Maui dolphins go allows scientists to predict much more accurately where commercial fishery deaths could occur and the risk that these pose to dolphin populations around New Zealand.

Two of New Zealand’s biggest fishing companies, Sanford and Moana are committed to doing their share to help the dolphins recover. From December 2022 any fishing method deployed has to be recognised as Maui-safe. We are committed, with government support, to remove all dolphin-unsafe net fishing from Maui habitat and urge government to support others involved in trawling to also transition to dolphin-safe methods.

 Nine species of fish taken from Maui habitat are banned from US markets, including Snapper, Tarakihi, Spotted Dogfish, Trevally, Warehou, Hoki, Barracouta, Mullet and Gurnard

However these moves by fishing companies and the New Zealand Government seem to fall short of what is required to meet the United States Marine Mammals Protection Act.

Michael Lawry, Managing Director of Sea Shepherd New Zealand, stated, 

“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 Maui dolphin at greater risk of extinction. We’re happy the Court of International Trade recognized the urgency of this situation for the Maui dolphin and agreed with us that an import ban was legally required.”