Fine print allows shark finning to continue

By Geoff Cumming

No justification for lengthy phase-in period, say conservationists

Ministers Nathan Guy (left) and Dr Nick Smith release a carpet shark to promote the  Government's draft plan for sharks, including decisions on shark finning. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Ministers Nathan Guy (left) and Dr Nick Smith release a carpet shark to promote the Government's draft plan for sharks, including decisions on shark finning. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

It was the kind of photo opportunity Cabinet ministers dream of. As the cameras rolled, Nick Smith (Conservation) and Nathan Guy (Primary Industries) happily wrestled with baby carpet sharks before releasing them into the sea at Wellington's Island Bay Marine Centre.

The made-for-TV stunt a fortnight ago marked the unveiling of a National Plan of Action for Shark Conservation which seemed to signal a ban on shark finning: the disturbing practice of cutting the fins off dead - and sometimes live - sharks hauled in by longliners and throwing the carcasses back overboard.

Lost in the touchy-feelgood images was the fine print: New Zealand's intention to ban the practice is three years away and is only a proposal.

Conservationists worried about the status of many of our 113 shark species say there is no justification for the phase-in and fear fishing industry proponents will use a consultation period to water down the plan.

New Zealand is among the world's top-20 exporters of shark fin products to Asian markets where they are considered a delicacy. While 100 other countries have banned finning at sea - and Asian demand appears to be falling in response to global pressure - Greenpeace says New Zealand is still dragging the chain.

The sharks in question are mostly blue sharks caught as bycatch by surface longliners targeting tuna off the South Island west coast and North Island east coast. Most reach the boat still alive. There are strong markets for shark liver and cartilage, and fins can fetch up to $45 a kilo.

But carcasses are worth a pittance, take up valuable hold space and can contaminate other catch. So fishers cut off the fins and throw the trunks back. Finning has become more important to longliners as tuna stocks, particularly of bluefin, have fallen. A resulting switch to targeting broadbill swordfish has led to a big increase in sharks taken as bycatch.

Marine biologist Riley Elliott estimates between 50,000 and 150,000 blue sharks are killed every year in New Zealand waters, including many juveniles, which may threaten sustainability. But no one really knows, says Mr Elliott, because although blue sharks are "managed" under our quota management system, no stock assessment has ever taken place. Mr Elliott, who is completing a PhD on blue sharks at Auckland University, says mako and porbeagle shark populations have also been hammered. Internationally, a dramatic decline in oceanic whitetip numbers is blamed on finning.

The proposed new regime requires fishers to release sharks alive or bring them ashore with fins intact for processing. Monitoring would be strengthened to ensure compliance.

The proposal allows a year to pass legislation followed by a two-year phase in, which Mr Guy says will give the industry time to develop guidelines for shark handling and maximise survival chances.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Karli Thomas says this means fishers could continue to fin sharks at sea until mid-2016. Ms Thomas says there's no need for such a long phase-in. She points to a lack of certainty in the wording of the draft plan.

"It talks about adopting approaches that may include landing sharks with fins naturally attached; we want something definitive that follows international best practice."

Matt Watson, host of TV3's ITM Fishing Show and a former commercial fisherman, rejects the idea that fishers need time to learn safe ways to release live sharks.

"The safe method to release is pretty simple - you just cut the line," Mr Watson says. "Removing the hook does more damage than good."

Seafood NZ chief executive Tim Pankhurst says the proposal effectively means if a shark is accidentally caught, fishers will throw back the whole body, rather than retaining the fins. "That is surely a wasteful way of solving what is supposed to be a waste problem."

Another problem, says Mr Pankhurst, is that some shark species can contaminate fish in the hold, through a process known as ammoniation, which also raises problems for disposal of trunks in landfills.

Mr Pankhurst maintains fins are taken only from sharks which are already dead [though video footage shot on New Zealand vessels and posted on the internet shows instances of sharks being finned while still alive].

"If we are forced to stop selling a part of a fish that is neither endangered nor treated inhumanely and is perfectly suitable for human consumption, then we have created a dangerous precedent in our primary industries."

The industry targets sharks that are plentiful in New Zealand waters, he says. "If they were threatened then the Government would reduce the quota or put them on the protected list."

This line, says Mr Elliott, is as misleading as statements in the draft plan which assert that mako numbers are increasing. "There's no evidence to back it up. Critical decisions are being made without data on sustainability."

Of 11 shark species able to be commercially fished under the quota management system, a scientific stock assessment has been undertaken for just one, rig, an inshore species, Mr Elliott says. "Until more is known about the population status of our sharks we shouldn't be fishing them at all."

Consultation on the National Plan of Action on Sharks closes on December 8. See mpi.govt.nz

- NZ Herald

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