New Zealand seafood industry says US import ban on fish caught in Māui dolphin habitat not needed

A ban by the US on some seafood exports from New Zealand could cost our fishing industry millions of dollars a year.

The court's decision is in response to a conservation group's plea to protect the critically endangered Māui dolphins.

There are just 50 Māui dolphins left. They live off the West Coast of New Zealand and in 2019 conservationists asked a US court to protect them by banning fish caught in their habitat and exported.

"It was a nice surprise because this has been going on for three years,"  conservation group Sea Shepherd's managing director Michael Lawry said.

Nine species of fish, that are caught with set-net and trawling techniques, are covered by the ban.

"We're hoping it's going to make the Government listen and rein in that fishing industry," Lawry said.

But the industry said it's not needed and that no Māui dolphin has died as a result of fishing since 2003.

"We've got cameras on all the boats that fish in there, so we're pretty confident that we are not a risk to Māui dolphins and are managing it responsibly," Seafood NZ CEO Dr Jeremy Helson said.

Although that's now up to the US court to decide.

In order for the ban to be lifted, the court has to find that New Zealand fishing regulations are as effective as its own. 

"We're working closely with the United States government on this and we're confident that they will ultimately assess our measures as being comparable to US measures," MPI's manager of international fisheries management James Brown said.

But international law expert Prof Al Gillespie said New Zealand shouldn't assume we will win.

"I wouldn't assume New Zealand is going to win the way our standards are at the moment. We may have to amend our standards more and we may have to increase them higher again if we want to maintain that access," Prof Gillespie said.

If the export ban becomes permanent then it could be costly to the North Island's west coast fishing industry. Greenpeace puts it at $200 million a year but the sector said it's too soon for an exact figure.

"It would be in the millions of dollars, so it is a concern," Dr Helson said.

The full impact will be made clearer in the US court next month.