Sea Shepherd Files Lawsuit Against U.S. Agencies to Save New Zealand’s Māui Dolphin from Extinction

Monday, 25 May, 2020

Sea Shepherd Legal and its co-counsel, Earthrise Law Center, filed a lawsuit on May 21st against US agencies that have failed to take legally mandated action to ban imports from the New Zealand fisheries that are driving the Māui dolphin to extinction.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Sea Shepherd New Zealand and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is against the U.S. Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, NOAA Fisheries, and the Treasury Department. Victims of bycatch in gillnet and trawl fisheries, fewer than 57 Māui dolphins remain. With the Baiji (the Chinese river dolphin) presumed to be extinct, the Māui dolphin is likely now the most endangered dolphin in the world.

The United States plays a big role in the demise of the Māui dolphin as the second largest importer of New Zealand seafood caught by fisheries using the type of gear and techniques that kill Māui dolphins. Scientists agree that the leading threat to Māui dolphins is bycatch and that “[t]he human-caused death of even one individual would increase the extinction risk” for the species. Yet, New Zealand fisheries continue to use techniques that ensnare up to at least three Māui dolphins every year.

The U.S. shares responsibility for the impacts of the $1.21 billion industry. The good news is that the U.S. has a unique tool to protect marine mammals subject to bycatch in foreign fisheries – the “imports provision” of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA requires U.S. agencies to prohibit imports from foreign fisheries that fail to prevent bycatch of marine mammals in line with U.S. standards. There is no question that New Zealand fails to meet such standards in the case of the Māui dolphin.

In February 2019, Sea Shepherd filed a petition for emergency rulemaking under the MMPA, demanding that the defendant agencies adhere to their legal mandate and ban the import of seafood from the New Zealand fisheries that utilize the type of gear and techniques that kill Māui dolphins. Defendants shirked their responsibility and denied Sea Shepherd’s petition.

“It seems highly unlikely that, despite assurances, New Zealand and the U.S. defendants will come up with a truly effective plan to halt the killing of Māui dolphins in bycatch” says Brett Sommermeyer, Legal Director for Sea Shepherd Legal. “Unless and until that happens, banning imports from New Zealand fisheries responsible for killing dolphins is irrefutably necessary – every day that passes puts this critically endangered species one step closer to extinction,” emphasizes Sommermeyer.

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