Mary Sewell: Speak up, NZ - ban shark finning

Staying silent on our poor record of conservation dooms New Zealand's pure image to future ridicule.

Shark-finning is still allowed in New Zealand waters, but is banned in 98 other countries. Photo / Supplied
Shark-finning is still allowed in New Zealand waters, but is banned in 98 other countries. Photo / Supplied

We are privileged to live in a society where we are able to openly express ourselves, and respond to the debate that arises. I attended a movie presentation organised by the Shark Alliance on the evil practice of live shark finning, a subject mentioned by Shelley Bridgeman in her recent blog on

Although the content was not new to me, the graphic images of wholesale disregard for these sharks as living creatures was both shocking and upsetting. I sat there in the movie thinking, as I often do, that something needs to be done to stop this, and other unsustainable practices, before it is too late.

We in New Zealand have long prided ourselves as being world-leaders in our conservation practices. We had some of the earliest national parks in the world. We were drivers in the setting up of marine reserves. And we have been leaders in how to save native birds from extinction - think of the black robin, the takahe and the kakapo.

But we are at a turning point in this country as to which direction we want to take. Do we want to continue to be a leader in conservation and sustainability practices? Or are we prepared to go down the same track as the rest of the world, assuring us that the slogan "100 per cent Pure New Zealand" will be something that our grandchildren laugh at as a quaint remnant of the past?

These questions came to me during the movie on shark-finning - a practice that is still allowed in New Zealand waters, although banned in 98 other countries. But it has also been on my mind for many other reasons. These include the arguments for New Zealand fishing of tooth-fish in the Ross Sea, the continued degradation of our waterways by urban runoff and farming practices, the cuts to the operations of the Department of Conservation, and the blind following of other market economies in exploiting our resources for economic gain.

Gareth Morgan has caused quite a stir with his opinions on cats in New Zealand society and the impact they have on our native populations - not only our native birds, but also our skinks, geckos and large insects like weta. While many will not agree with him, we are privileged to live in a society where we are able to openly express ourselves, and respond to the debate that arises.

I, too, have reached the turning point, where I am not going to sit back and be publicly silent on these matters. I have been open in discussions with both undergraduate and postgraduate students, with my scientific colleagues, and my friends and family about where we are going wrong in New Zealand with respect to the environment and long-term sustainability of what we love and find precious in this country. And I want these precious things to remain for the generations of my family to come.

Like Gareth Morgan, I want to start a debate about where we are in New Zealand and where we are headed. Let's start with the following questions:Should we ban shark-finning in New Zealand waters?

Members of the New Zealand Shark Alliance, and I, agree that this is something that needs to be done and seven of the eight major political parties also support this goal.

A "National Plan of Action for Sharks" is currently being prepared by the Ministry of Primary Industries, with public consultation expected at the end of March. Read the material on the website ( and let the Government know what you think.

Are we prepared to accept the continual degradation of the resources of the Department of Conservation?

Yet another round of restructuring is on the horizon, which inevitably leads to loss of people and expertise that we desperately need to ensure that our native flora and fauna can be enjoyed by future generations.

Is it not time to ask the question: why, when I visit state or national parks in other countries, am I expected to pay for the privilege, yet visitors to our country get to do this for free?

Under the Education Act (1989), universities have a legislated role as a "critic and conscience of society".

As a University of Auckland employee, I am expressing here my own opinions, informed by many years of study of our marine environment.

For too long I have been silent on things that matter to me and it is time to let the Government, opposition parties and ministries concerned with our environment know what we, as the public, want for New Zealand in the future.

Do you want to be part of this debate too?

Dr Mary A. Sewell is an associate professor at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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