After a review lasting almost two years, a decision has been made to ban live animal exports by sea.
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor announced the move on Wednesday. The ban will come into effect after a transition period of up to two years.
The live export trade has been controversial in recent years, with animal rights groups long calling for it to be banned. They say it is cruel and inhumane but cattle exporters have defended the practice, saying animals are treated well while at sea and warn a ban would have a significant impact on the farming sector.
The issue received widespread attention last year when the livestock carrier Gulf Livestock 1 sank off the coast of Japan. The vessel had left Napier bound for China with more than 40 crew members - including two New Zealanders - and almost 6000 cattle aboard. All but two crew members died in the incident.
O'Connor said the move to ban live exports was important to protect New Zealand's image around the world.
"At the heart of our decision is upholding New Zealand’s reputation for high standards of animal welfare. We must stay ahead of the curve in a world where animal welfare is under increasing scrutiny," he said.
"Ultimately we aren't able to guarantee the welfare of these animals at sea and that is an unacceptable risk to New Zealand's reputation."
He said the two-year transition period would give the sector time to adapt.
"I acknowledge the economic benefit some farmers get from the trade, but I also note that support of it is not universal within the sector."
The Government launched its review into live exports in June 2019 and considered options ranging from improving export systems to a total ban on the trade.
The review was held up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) providing its final advice to O'Connor last month.
The Agriculture Minister defended the lengthy process, saying it was a complex issue that needed careful consideration.
Following the sinking of the Gulf Livestock 1 in September a temporary ban on live exports was put in place. An independent review was also conducted, with stronger rules put in place when exports were allowed to resume.
New Zealand only exports animals for breeding purposes, but animal welfare groups say it's impossible to know what happens to cattle one they leave our shores.
SPCA chief executive Andrea Midgen says since 1985 her organisation has spent "hundreds of hours behind the scenes" working to get live exports banned.
The SPCA was "super excited" by the ban, she told Newshub.
"It's just barbaric to be doing this to animals when there's other methods of helping other countries around the world. They don't meet our animal welfare standards often and it's not a good look for New Zealand."
But David Hayman, general manager of livestock export company Genetic Development New Zealand, told RNZ there are no animal welfare grounds to ending the practice.
"The facts support that we are doing a world-class job in the way that we export animals and that 99.9 percent of them get to China safely - and that loss rate is no different to what you'd have on a New Zealand farm," he told RNZ this morning, before the ban was officially announced.
He said 110,000 cattle were exported over the last calendar year, representing more than $300 million in trade.
Orders for this year were "substantially up" on that and were heading towards $500 million, he said.
O'Connor said officials had spoken to key trading partners about the decision.
Since 2015, live exports by sea represent around 0.2 percent of New Zealand's primary sector exports revenue.