Conservation groups have welcomed the Government's announcement to speed up the banning of shark finning in New Zealand waters, but say the devil could be in the details.
We have taken on board submitters’ concerns that the timetable for banning shark finning should be sooner”Nathan Guy, Primary Industries Minister
The Government has decided to speed up the process in the face of overwhelming public concern.
Around 45,300 submissions were made about the draft National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, which proposed an end to shark finning by October 2016.
"We have taken on board submitters’ concerns that the timetable for banning shark finning should be sooner," Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy says.
The finalised timetable for stopping finning of the country's 113 species of sharks will take place in three stages. The ban will take effect on the first group of shark species from October 1 this year and the second from the same date in 2015, leaving the highly-migratory blue shark until 2016.
However, exactly which species of sharks fit into each group and what the punishments will be have not been announced.
New Zealand Shark Alliance spokesman Peter Hardstaff says the announcement is a "really important step" that brings New Zealand more in line with international standards.
However, there is still concern about the delay in banning finning of blue sharks.
"We urge the Government to bring that forward. There are still some details to be worked out including the level of fines and the exact species in each group across the years."
The Green Party has congratulated the Government for taking action, but say the sooner blue sharks are included in the ban, the more that will be saved.
Mr Hardstaff agrees, saying this would create an incentive for commercial fishers to develop alternative methods and to stop finning altogether.
However, Conservation Minister Nick Smith says a pragmatic approach needs to be taken to strike a balance between returning the shark to the sea alive and the safety of the fishermen when unhooking large sharks on the back of small boats.
Blue sharks are mostly a by-catch on the long-line tuna boats. Dr Smith believes the species is not the most threatened in New Zealand waters.
"The industry has also made plain that just because the legal prohibition doesn't take place until October 1, 2016, they are committed to taking steps right now to try and reduce number of blue sharks that are caught. We want as a government to work with industry to find solutions and not just imposing bans instantly.
He refuted New Zealand was lagging behind the approximately 100 countries who have already banned shark finning, saying many have just banned the practice on live sharks.
"We're going substantially beyond that with this announcement."
Mr Guy says the timeline is achievable and puts the protections in "as quickly as possible".
It is already an offence to fin a shark and return it to sea alive under the Animal Welfare Act. Under the extended ban it will also become illegal to catch a shark, kill it, remove its fins and dump the carcass at sea.
Shark fins are valuable for making shark fin soup which is a delicacy in Asia, and for the production of many traditional Asian medicines.
Dr Smith says sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem and the national plan needs to ensure their survival in New Zealand waters.
The plan also includes a number of other measures for the conservation and management of sharks including education, dealing with non-fishing threats and research and information.
The shark action plan will be reviewed again in 2017 with the intention of issuing a revised version in 2018.
Read the joint Comments on the New Zealand Draft National Plan of Action for Sharks for consideration by the Fisheries Management Division of the Ministry for Primary Industries submitted in December 2013 by Shark Advocates International, the Shark Trust and Project AWARE.
Photo: Blue Shark by NOAA