February 01, 2023

Victory for the Māui Dolphin

Earthrise achieves a significant victory for the critically endangered Māui Dolphin.

Photo courtesy of the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Earthrise Law Center, representing Sea Shepherd New Zealand and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, recently achieved a significant victory for the critically endangered Māui dolphins. Earthrise is a litigation clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, and Sea Shepherd is represented by Earthrise staff attorneys Lia Comerford and Kevin Cassidy, and Allison LaPlante, Earthrise Clinical Professor and Director.

Māui dolphins are one of the rarest and smallest dolphins in the world, found only in the waters around New Zealand’s North Island. Recent estimates place the dolphin population at only 48–64 individuals above one year old. Meanwhile, fisheries bycatch from gillnets and trawls is the leading threat to the dolphin’s survival.

In the ongoing lawsuit, brought pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and its implementing regulations, the U.S. Court of International Trade granted Sea Shepherd’s motion for a preliminary injunction, banning imports of nine fish species from two gillnet and trawl fisheries that overlap with a portion of the dolphin’s range. As Judge Katzmann wrote, “Where—as here—the probability that a single fishery-induced mortality will push the population closer to extinction is high, the relatively low probability of bycatch stemming from the species’ meager numbers must not foreclose protections against fisheries threats.”The preliminary ban will remain in place until the United States makes a valid finding regarding the comparative effectiveness of New Zealand’s regulatory program to U.S. standards or until the court case is fully resolved.

“Earthrise students played a key role in this victory,” says Earthrise Staff Attorney Lia Comerford. “The Court’s ruling granting the preliminary injunction motion was an important step in protecting the critically endangered Māui dolphin and a great vindication of our clinic’s effort.” Caitlin Stiltner ’23 was one such student, working on the case while a 2L in the Earthrise clinic. “I greatly value my experience contributing to Earthrise’s case protecting the Maui dolphin. Drafting answers to the court’s questions strengthened my legal writing skills and developed my understanding of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

The case also shaped some of Earthrise’s post-graduate Founder’s Legacy Fellows. Dani Replogle, 2019-2021 Fellow, began working with Earthrise as a student, but the fellowship helped boost her confidence as an attorney. Dani argued the preliminary injunction motion before Judge Katzmann. “I was fresh out of law school and working with some of the best environmental litigators in the field. Lia and Allison’s faith in me was so encouraging and I wanted to do everything I could to make them proud and protect the dolphins. My nerves were terrible when I was preparing for oral argument, but after the argument, I was pleased with how calmly I handled Judge Katzmann’s questions. I learned that I can trust myself to do this work, even when it feels overwhelming. Now, when faced with a big, scary task, I have this win to remind myself that I can do it.” Dani finished her Earthrise Fellowship in 2021 and is now a Staff Attorney at the Public Health Law Center in Minneapolis, MN.