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Earthrise Files Lawsuit to Save Māui Dolphins

July 09, 2020

On May 21, 2020, Earthrise, and their co-counsel Sea Shepherd Legal, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sea Shepherd New Zealand and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society challenging the U.S. government’s failure to protect New Zealand’s critically endangered Māui dolphin.

The lawsuit was filed in the Court of International Trade and alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies have violated 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. The Complaint alleges that New Zealand fails to meet these standards. By failing to ban the import of commercial fish and products derived from fish caught in the Māui dolphin’s range, the lawsuit states the agencies have violated the MMPA. To help protect the Māui dolphin from extinction, on July 1, Earthrise and Sea Shepherd Legal filed a motion for preliminary injunction asking the Court to order the Defendants to ban the import of fish caught in gillnet and trawl fisheries in the Māui dolphin’s range while the lawsuit is pending.

The Māui dolphin is the most endangered marine dolphin in the world, with fewer than 60 individuals remaining in the wild. Fisheries’ bycatch, and in particular, bycatch from gillnets and trawls in the dolphins’ range, is the leading threat to the survival of the Māui dolphin. The U.S. is the second-largest importer of New Zealand seafood, and seafood caught in gillnet and trawl fisheries in the Māui dolphin’s range is imported into the United States.

“Defendants have known for years that Māui dolphins are being killed in gillnet and trawl fisheries at rates that exceed U.S. standards, and yet they have failed to comply with their legal obligation to ban imports from these fisheries. This ban will force New Zealand to increase protections for the dolphin, and help save it from extinction,” stated Lia Comerford, Earthrise Staff Attorney (JD, ’13). Ms. Comerford and Earthrise Legal Fellow Dani Replogle (JD, ’19) represent Sea Shepherd in the suit.

Clinic students Sadie Normoyle ’20 and Jocelyn Phares ’21 were involved in developing the case and drafting the complaint. Phares was first introduced to the Māui dolphin as a legal extern for the World Wildlife Fund in Wellington, New Zealand during the summer of 2018. “I assisted WWF-NZ’s in-house counsel with researching the scope of the WWF-NZ’s domestic conservation campaign for the Māui dolphin,” stated Phares. “It was by complete chance that Earthrise happened to be working on a Sea Shepherd case for the Māui dolphin this past year.”

As a clinic student with Earthrise, Phares improved her legal writing skills while working to save the Māui dolphin. “Not only did Earthrise give me the opportunity to continue to protect the precious Māui dolphin, but my experience in Earthrise made me a more precise law student and future lawyer,” Phares stated. Phares wrote legal memos and conducted interviews during her year with Earthrise. “I particularly enjoyed interviewing standing declarants. It was incredibly interesting meeting people from all walks of life who share a common passion for saving the world’s littlest dolphin,” she said.

Normoyle got the chance to advance her legal research skills while working on this case. “My experience in Earthrise allowed me to develop stronger research skills, particularly when it comes to complex environmental statutes,” Normoyle stated. “The work also gave me an introduction into international environmental issues and drafting complaints. Working for Earthrise was one of the best things I did in law school, and has helped me feel more prepared for entering the legal profession this year.”

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