A US court has temporarily banned imports of New Zealand fish caught in the habitat of the Māui dolphin because the South Pacific nation’s protections for the critically endangered species are not comparable to those in the US.

The US Court of International Trade issued a preliminary injunction Monday to stop the import of New Zealand fish including snapper, mullet and gurnard caught around the west coast of the North Island by set-net and trawl fisheries.

The case was brought in 2020 by environmental activist group Sea Shepherd New Zealand, which argued that the US should prohibit imports from New Zealand fisheries that fail to meet US standards of marine mammal bycatch prevention.

Sea Shepherd said when it lodged the case it was taking the action to prevent the “impending extinction” of the Māui dolphin, which is the smallest in the world and native to New Zealand. The court heard there are only between 48 and 64 of the dolphins remaining. 

“Set-net and trawl fisheries that overlap with Māui dolphin habitat result in injury and death to dolphins in excess of United States standards,” Michael Lawry, managing director of Sea Shepherd New Zealand, said in a statement Tuesday in Auckland. “We’re happy the Court of International Trade recognized the urgency of this situation for the Māui dolphin and agreed with us that an import ban was legally required.”

New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries said it is working through the decision and understands there will be another hearing next month. It said the New Zealand government will provide information and support to the US government, which is the defendant in the case, where required.

“New Zealand has put in place comprehensive measures to protect Māui dolphins which have been based on the best available scientific information,” said James Brown, manager of international fisheries management at MPI. “In the meantime, we will work with exporters to identify and divert potentially affected product.”

MPI said it anticipated the temporary halt will affect a relatively small portion of overall fisheries trade with the US, amounting to less than NZ$2 million ($1.24 million) a year.