Shark finning - a national disgrace

22:49, Oct 22 2012

New Zealand claims to have a world-leading sustainable fishery, yet the way we treat sharks is nothing short of barbaric and is rapidly becoming an international embarrassment.

Blue shark tail fin (photo: Peter Langlands, Wild Capture).

Sharks are some of the ocean's most ancient creatures and have existed in our marine environment for more than 400 million years. They are apex predators, and the health of a shark population can in fact determine the health of the populations of fish that we like to eat. 

Rather than us being terrified of sharks, if sharks could indeed feel fear, they should be extremely frightened of us - since the horrific practice of shark finning is sending a range of species toward extinction.


This box of blue shark fins and tail fins came from New Zealand waters (Photo: Peter Langlands, Wild Capture)

In "clean green" New Zealand, we are playing a very significant role in this practice. So far, more than one-third of the world's fishing countries have banned the practice of shark finning, and we are lagging behind.  Ninety-eight countries and nine regional fisheries organisations have banned shark finning or the fishing of sharks outright. Sadly, in New Zealand, shark finning is still legal, and our three most commonly finned sharks (blue, porbeagle and shortfin mako) are on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

If the name "shark finning" isn't descriptive enough, let me explain it for you. Fishermen in New Zealand catch sharks while fishing for more lucrative catch like tuna. If they land a shark, they slice off its fin and throw the shark overboard (NB: this can happen while the shark is still alive - see this video for proof if you can stomach it). For the sharks that are thrown overboard alive, it is a horrific way to die, since the lack of mobility due to a lost fin means they can't move, and therefore suffocate.

New Zealand is one of the top 20 exporters of shark fins to Hong Kong.

The demand for shark fins has risen greatly due to their supposed medicinal properties and as the key ingredient in shark fin soup. Up to 100 million sharks worldwide are estimated to be harvested for their fins. This is not a sustainable practice.

(Finned mako shark - Photo: Peter Langlands Wild Capture)

Not only is it still legal in New Zealand to partake in this horrific practice, but New Zealand has effectively thumbed its nose at the international commitment it signed up to as part of a National Plan of Action on Sharks (2008). In the NPOA, New Zealand promised "to ensure the conservation and management of sharks and their long-term sustainable use". There is nothing sustainable about finning and throwing overboard thousands of sharks in the name of profit.  Worse than that, New Zealand fishing companies tend not to bring back the bodies of the sharks for the simple reason that the (not as valuable) carcasses take up too much room in the hold, which would be better filled with more lucrative fish like tuna.  The whole things stinks (and I'm not just talking about the fish hold). In my opinion, using about 2 per cent of the shark carcass is not what I would call "sustainable use".

An umbrella group of NGOs and other interested parties have got together and last week launched the New Zealand Shark Alliance. The purpose of this group is to raise awareness of the practice in New Zealand and to try to bring our legislation into line with other countries. This group is insisting that all sharks be caught sustainably and brought to shore with "fins naturally attached". This is an internationally recommended approach that aims to stop such a wasteful practice.  Bringing the reality of shark finning to the minds of the New Zealand public might also address some of the illegal live-finning that occurs.

The ITM Fishing Show's Matt Watson thinks that shark finning in New Zealand is a "disgusting" practice (see the video below). What do you think?

I make no apologies for the photographs and videos I have included in this story. We must stop being indifferent about this kind of disgusting practice and if we feel appalled by the images we have seen, then we should take action instead of being apathetic accomplices in the sharks' demise.

What is going on here? Is it simply that sharks are "out of sight, out of mind"? Do we need to show more of these horrific images to get people making a racket about this? How do you feel about shark finning?

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