Alexander Gillespie: Shark policy trails other fisheries

In some parts of the ocean the great white shark is vulnerable to extinction. Photo / AP

Wasteful and cruel shark-finning is prohibited in many countries, but NZ allows it - with provisions.

By Alexander Gillespie

Sharks have a direct lineage to the Jurassic era, predating the dinosaurs. Despite existing for millions of years, it is questionable whether all of their types will see out the next 100. Global landings of sharks in the early 1950s were around 200,000 tons per year. By 2011 it was estimated that up to 73 million sharks were being captured by year.

There are 1093 known species of shark of which 95 species have so far been confirmed as migratory. New Zealand has at least 112 species, living in, or passing through, its waters. Seventy-three of these shark species are commercially fished. This is an economically valuable resource, with the shark fins exports alone worth an estimated $4.5 million per year. The key to this equation is the fin - fin prices can fetch up to $1200 per kilo in various markets in Asia.

The value of this trade has created an incentive in many countries to over-fish a species which is slow to mature, produces few young, and was already facing an onslaught, after the anti-shark frenzy caused by the movie Jaws. Contemporary figures suggest that one third of all shark species are believed to be threatened with extinction or becoming close to the threshold of concern.

For migratory sharks, the situation is worse, with almost 50 per cent being threatened with extinction, and a further 27 per cent on the cusp of conservation concern. Eight per cent of all shark species are critically endangered.

Those on the edge of extinction have seen population collapses in the region of 80 to 99 per cent in the past 50 years. The great white is vulnerable to extinction. Such classifications often depend upon in which area the sharks exist.

The porbeagle (a close relative of the great white) has a global classification of being vulnerable, and either endangered or critically endangered in different parts of its northern range. In the Mediterranean, the porbeagle is on the verge of extinction, with a population decline of over 99 per cent since the mid 20th century.

New Zealand generally responds favourably to such debates in regional fisheries organisations where we share the stocks, when the conservation evidence is clear. For example, once the oceanic white-tipped shark was classified as vulnerable, all New Zealand vessels operating on the high seas were prohibited from taking this species. In other areas, our position is not as clean as a 100 per cent Pure label would desire.

Within our waters, is not so much a case of evidence of decline, as radical uncertainty over what is happening. Only 11 species are carefully monitored under the quota management system. This situation is at variance with our international commitments in this area to ensure that our catches of sharks are sustainable, taken from stocks which are conservation assessed, and are not vulnerable to extinction.

The obligations upon New Zealand in this area, although clear, are not strong as New Zealand is not a signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks.

Continued below.

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This is unlike 24 other nations, including the United States and Australia, and the European Union, who consider shark conservation to require much greater international attention than it is currently achieving. This international effort on endangered migratory sharks has been mirrored in half a dozen other international organisations. Hard fought diplomatic battles over sharks are becoming a common feature in the meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, as a number of countries are now arguing that because many national and regional controls to regulate shark fisheries are failing, that a number of species of sharks should not be the subject to international trade.

The problem of shark conservation in New Zealand is complicated by the fact that around 80 per cent of these sharks are caught solely for their fins, and their bodies are then dumped back at sea. This harvesting method is both wasteful and cruel if the sharks are dumped back into the ocean whilst alive.

Whilst New Zealand does not allow the dumping of live sharks once their fins have been removed, there are questions over how well that rule is being enforced.

Where we are at variance with international opinion is the dumping of 98 per cent of the dead shark, whilst retaining only the 2 found in the fin. The practice of finning is remarkably wasteful. It is the opposite of any goals at waste minimisation of bycatch.

It also makes the identification of the shark difficult, and thus claims about the sustainability of the catch, robust. When these shark parts are then shipped into an international market place, we are not helping the creation of verifiable sustainable practices. Due to such concerns, the practice of shark finning has been roundly condemned through international organisations of which New Zealand is a member, the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the United Nations. In the last instance, the UN called upon all countries to, "take immediate and concerted action to ... regulate shark fisheries, in particular those measures which prohibit or restrict fisheries conducted solely for the purpose of harvesting shark fins, and, where necessary, to consider taking other measures, as appropriate, such as requiring that all sharks be landed with each fin naturally attached". From such a clear international position, at least 98 countries in the world, including Australia, the United States, and the European Union, have now prohibited shark finning. New Zealand is not one of these countries.

The debate about the conservation of sharks will get louder in years to come. At the international level, it can be expected that restrictions on the trade in shark species will heighten. For a country such as New Zealand, this is an opportunity that can be played to our benefit.

The opportunity will be where it can be verified and documented, that each shark taken from New Zealand waters was taken from a sustainable stock, and that it was brought back to shore with its fins naturally attached. If this is not done, the converse will be the rule. It will be bad for the sharks, bad for conservation, and bad for the reputation of New Zealand.

Alexander Gillespie is professor of Law at Waikato University and author of Conservation, Biodiversity and International Law, Elgar Publishing, London, 2012.

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09:44 am Thursday 04 October 2012
Great article. The NZ shark alliance (NZSA) is an umbrella group of NGOs, unified in a campaign to prohibit shark finning in NZ waters and protect our sharks.

For more information visit to see how you can help.

North Shore

- New Zealand
11:43 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
This sick practise must be stopped. Unfortunately this is just another example of the current government senselessly ignoring the destruction of our wildlife and natural resources and unique environments, just so some anti-environmental rednecks can make a buck.


11:43 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
As a kiwi working in the UK marine conservation sector (with a remit which includes all Northeast Atlantic waters) for the last 3 years, being able to take an 'outside-looking-in' view of NZ marine conservation policy is an eye-opener - not least of all because NZ's marine conservation and fisheries policies are becoming increasingly embarrassing.

I used to be proud of NZ's international leadership in environmental issues - but now when the likes of NZ shark finning, Hectors and Maui's Dolphin sliding towards extinction, a vote against a proposed Ross Sea marine reserve, and the negligence in the crashing Patagonian Toothfish fishery make headlines, NZ's reputation (and marine environment) continues to take a battering.

Elliot O'Sullivan

11:43 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
The problem with sharks even being subject to the QMS is that most of the ones targeted for fisheries happen to be migratory. Largely due to big sharks = big fins, and just about every big shark is migratory.

The smooth hammerhead is the only hammerhead we get in NZ and I am deeply concerned over their status, as the scalloped hammerhead is considered endangered, and even with the body attached to the fins it can be difficult to tell the difference between smooth and scalloped - meaning our smooth hammerheads are probably being fished quite regularly under relaxed fishing systems that often don't make a distinction between smooth and scalloped.

While many people just think it is a waste of food, these large migratory sharks simply cannot recover with fishing pressure as they are. Long gestation periods of up to a year, very few offspring compared to most fish, and only reaching sexual maturity after a good 10-16 years depending on species.

They only breed slightly faster than whales do, with most sharks only having 1-2 pups. Some, such as the great hammerhead can have as many as 40, but you can see why population concerns as so great - whales have not exactly bounced back.


- Waikato
11:43 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
Yeah well there you go, this and the article about the Ross Sea about sums the whole stupid attitude toward nature in this country and by the govt, not so much as a modicum of understanding of the intricacies of the biological balance and how important it is to the health of the planet, which may I remind you, we live on, there isn't another. Shame shame shame


11:42 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
Sick, twisted and wasteful. Just like any government that would continue to allow it.


- New Zealand
11:42 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
If we make the sale of shark fin soup a criminal offense, that should help save the vicious blighters.

Geoff Stone

11:42 am Wednesday 03 October 2012
School shark quota is valuable and good prices are receivedespecially on the australian market where it is marketed as flake, and coming from our waters has low heavy metal readings.

Larger pelagic sharks are less valuable and are mostly caught by longliners who want to keep storage space available for more valuable species such as broadbill(swordfish), moon fish and the various tuna species.

Total shark weight is calculated from a multiplier of the weight of shark fins, for assessing quota, but the practise is barbaric, wasteful and out of step with our most of our trading partners. More ffort should be applied to developing markets for shark flesh ,and less edible species should be returned intact.


02:43 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012

"Gordon Ramsay eats Shark Fin Soup for the first time!"


- New Zealand
01:48 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012
Several years ago I saw a feature, perhaps on 60 minutes, where a group of poor African men were catching sharks, slicing off the fins and simply dumping the live shark overboard. Not only is this a cruel practice, but it amazed me that they would waste such huge volumes of food. Over the course of a day they probably killed 50 sharks and dumped what must have been tonnes of food into the sea. Something makes me think there would be a fair bit of demand for that shark at the local markets.

I can't believe so few of the shark species within NZ waters are not included in the QMS to monitor their population status, that has to change. Overall the QMS is a good system, at least compared to other systems worldwide, but it definitely needs reforms.

I've also heard that shark fin soup is not even good (at least to the Westerners who've tried it). First the Asians will kill off their tigers for their penises in order to supposedly act as an aphrodesiac and then they'll kill off the world's tiger sharks for soup.

diane browne

- Auckland
01:48 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012
It is laughable really, we all hammer the farmers for farming their pigs in crates and then NZ allows Shark-finning which is a horrific cruel practice. I can only assume that someone in the government is benefitting from this industry.


- Antarctica
01:47 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012
However the NZ govt won't step in to help save the Hectors dolphin, of which there are only 55 left in NZ now. So lets see if anything will change with the shark finning business as they have a very relaxed attitude to preserving other wildlife species in NZ. And then there is the Ross sea.


- Antarctica
01:47 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012
Shark finning is cruel, barbaric and such a waste simply for soup!


- Fendalton
01:47 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012
Not at all surprising given the ineptitude of this government in environmental and conservational matters.


01:47 pm Tuesday 02 October 2012
This practice makes me sick.
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