US seafood ban plan causes stir in NZ

A bid to ban Kiwi seafood from the US over Māui dolphin welfare concerns was only thwarted after a flurry of action from officials - but the matter may yet head to the American courts.

A petition asking the United States to ban Kiwi seafood imports over the industry’s impact on Māui dolphins was only rejected after officials here escalated the issue to the most senior members of government.

The organisation which sought to secure the ban says it is still contemplating whether to challenge the decision through a lawsuit that could block millions of dollars of exports from entering the US.

In February, Sea Shepherd asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ban New Zealand snapper and other seafood caught within the range of Māui dolphins’ habitat.

The petition cited the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires the country to ban the import of any seafood from countries that fail to prevent bycatch of marine mammals in line with US standards.

While the legislation does not come into full force until 2022, its provisions can be extended to cover species which would otherwise become extinct by then.

Documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the lengths the Government went to in order to head off an economically damaging ban.

In a March briefing to Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, officials from Fisheries NZ and the Department of Conservation warned that while the proposed ban would apply to $2 million of annual exports, the overall $200m of annual fisheries exports to the US could then be at risk unless a traceability and certification programme was set up.

“In particular, an import ban applied as a result of Sea Shepherd court action can be expected to apply for years rather than months."

A ban would also “undermine the reputation of New Zealand’s fisheries management regime and environmental credentials”, and could encourage similar NGO-led actions against the country in the future.

NOAA appeared confident that New Zealand was taking the Sea Shepherd petition seriously, the briefing said, with the country’s embassy in Washington involved in talks with the agency, and officials in New Zealand holding video conferences with their American counterparts.

But the stakes appeared to increase in May, when an update was sent to Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as well as Nash and Sage.

The briefing is heavily redacted, but discusses a delay in the release of the Government’s proposed changes to its threat management plan for Māui and Hector’s dolphins and mentions a video conference with US officials “where the urgency with which this was being treated within New Zealand was underlined”.

It appears that the likelihood of a wide-ranging ban on all seafood imports from New Zealand increased, rather than just a select range, with officials warning it would be “difficult and time consuming to reverse”.

“In particular, an import ban applied as a result of Sea Shepherd court action can be expected to apply for years rather than months,” the briefing said.

In June, only a day after the Government released its threat management plan proposals for public consultation, NOAA rejected Sea Shepherd’s petition and said the country was “implementing a regulatory program comparable in effectiveness to the United States” with proposed changes which would likely further reduce the risk of bycatch.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was sent a copy of an official briefing warning about a potential ban on New Zealand seafood imports into the United States. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Sea Shepherd NZ managing director Michael Lawry said the organisation was not surprised by the decision, but believed it had a good chance of securing a ban if it filed a lawsuit challenging NOAA’s reasoning.

Lawry said a US ban on the import of some Mexican fish and shrimp to protect the endangered vaquita porpoise, secured through the US Court of International Trade in 2018 under the same legislation, had been repeatedly upheld despite multiple appeals by the American government.

Sea Shepherd Legal, a non-profit environmental law firm which acts as a sister organisation to Sea Shepherd, helped to prepare the NOAA petition. Lawry said it would have a role in any subsequent legal action, with a final decision due in the near future.

“Everyone’s tried petitions and funeral marches and media releases and brochures and flyers...and we’ve had very little luck - the only thing that the fishing industry seems to understand is money really,” Lawry said.

Fisheries Inshore NZ chief executive Jeremy Helson said his organisation had not been involved in the Government’s response to the Sea Shepherd petition, but had made a submission to NOAA due to its concerns about the potential impact on Kiwi seafood exporters.

“The science in this area is pretty uncertain, so we were just trying to make sure whatever deliberations were occurring were based on solid, robust, reliable science.”

No decision yet on next steps for threat management

Helson said the industry’s biggest concern was not about the specific ban which had been proposed, which would affect only a small part of the export market, but the precedent it would set.

He did not believe the petition had damaged the reputation of the Kiwi seafood industry, saying its rejection had shown New Zealand had a “robust” threat management regime in place.

In a statement, Nash said officials had provided NOAA with a range of information, including the science and risk modelling approach underpinning the options in the revised threat management plan, after New Zealand was approached by it to respond to the petition.

Ensuring threats to Maui and Hector’s dolphins were being managed effectively was a priority for the Government, he said.

No decisions had been made on the next steps for the threat management plan process, but he and Sage would soon receive advice on finalising the plan once officials finished reviewing public submissions.

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