Editorial: Finning and sinning

21:42, Nov 11 2013

First the Government made it illegal to cut the fins off a shark and return it live to the sea.

That was something of a distortion of the "take only what you need" approach which, for all its surgical precision, was indefensibly cruel; the sea not being an environment known for its compassionate treatment of fish with disabilities - and fins not being an optional extra on any viable shark.

But see if you can spot the legislative loophole?

The lawmakers have now decided that it is not tip-top practice for fishermen to remain legally entitled to proceed as above provided they introduce a second step of ensuring the shark is dead, and therefore just a carcass, when it goes over the side.

So a ban on that practice is now proposed. Quite rightly, this is being welcomed widely. If not universally. And we're not thinking solely of the Asian market for shark fin soup and fin-based medicines.

The Southland Times has printed reproachful letters reminding us that our shark fisheries are already under a quota management system, under which the by-catch of non-targetted sharks is low. And that shark caught by gill net, as opposed to longlining, have typically drowned very soon after being caught.


And that once a shark has been caught it is only sensible to use as much of it as possible, fins included.

To help with a sense of scale: for all the high price they fetch, shark fin exports are worth $4.5 million annually - not a whole hell of a lot compared to $1.6 billion in fishing exports. While more than 70 of the 113 shark species in our waters are commercially fished, only 9 per cent (11 species) are under the quota management system. The rest are not protected.

But look. Is not the case that all we have here is an industry that is virtuously confining itself to the sustainable use of whole sharks, legitimately caught for their good eating, like rig and school shark.

If that was the case then what, exactly, explains accounts from the Marlborough Sounds of mutilated sharks - some still alive - floating past divers, on their way towards the bottom to die from suffocation, blood loss, starvation, or from the attentions of other species?

Where targetted sharks have been caught, not even the lobby group of scientists and fishers who comprise the NZ Shark Alliance are calling for an end to the use of most of the body, including the fins, although the alliance does believe better stock assessments in those fisheries are needed.

It is not too much to ask - actually, to insist - that where the fishing industry catches sharks it does so in a sustainable and accountable way, without dumping guilty secrets, alive or dead, over the side of the boat.

Making their latest call to a chorus of approval, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and Conservation Minister Nick Smith did slightly mis-step in their joint announcement by setting out their reasoning in slightly cosmetic terms.

They said shark finning was "inconsistent with New Zealand's reputation as one of the best managed and conserved fisheries in the world". This does rather invite the reproach that what should matter is the reality behind the reputation.

And yet, reputation does matter. Call it a newfound squeamishness if you like, but the ruthlessness of the shark finning industry worldwide has gained it a sour notoriety. Remember the throat-clearing confirmation from Air New Zealand that it had carried shark fins in the past, but has now suspended the practice.

The Southland Times