Sharks have a direct lineage to the Jurassic era, predating the dinosaurs. Despite existing for millions of years, it is questionable whether all of their types will see out the next 100. Global landings of sharks in the early 1950s were around 200,000 tons per year. By 2011 it was estimated that up to 73 million sharks were being captured by year.
There are 1093 known species of shark of which 95 species have so far been confirmed as migratory. New Zealand has at least 112 species, living in, or passing through, its waters. Seventy-three of these shark species are commercially fished. This is an economically valuable resource, with the shark fins exports alone worth an estimated $4.5 million per year. The key to this equation is the fin - fin prices can fetch up to $1200 per kilo in various markets in Asia.
The value of this trade has created an incentive in many countries to over-fish a species which is slow to mature, produces few young, and was already facing an onslaught, after the anti-shark frenzy caused by the movie Jaws. Contemporary figures suggest that one third of all shark species are believed to be threatened with extinction or becoming close to the threshold of concern.
For migratory sharks, the situation is worse, with almost 50 per cent being threatened with extinction, and a further 27 per cent on the cusp of conservation concern. Eight per cent of all shark species are critically endangered.
Those on the edge of extinction have seen population collapses in the region of 80 to 99 per cent in the past 50 years. The great white is vulnerable to extinction. Such classifications often depend upon in which area the sharks exist.
The porbeagle (a close relative of the great white) has a global classification of being vulnerable, and either endangered or critically endangered in different parts of its northern range. In the Mediterranean, the porbeagle is on the verge of extinction, with a population decline of over 99 per cent since the mid 20th century.
New Zealand generally responds favourably to such debates in regional fisheries organisations where we share the stocks, when the conservation evidence is clear. For example, once the oceanic white-tipped shark was classified as vulnerable, all New Zealand vessels operating on the high seas were prohibited from taking this species. In other areas, our position is not as clean as a 100 per cent Pure label would desire.
Within our waters, is not so much a case of evidence of decline, as radical uncertainty over what is happening. Only 11 species are carefully monitored under the quota management system. This situation is at variance with our international commitments in this area to ensure that our catches of sharks are sustainable, taken from stocks which are conservation assessed, and are not vulnerable to extinction.
The obligations upon New Zealand in this area, although clear, are not strong as New Zealand is not a signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks.
This is unlike 24 other nations, including the United States and Australia, and the European Union, who consider shark conservation to require much greater international attention than it is currently achieving. This international effort on endangered migratory sharks has been mirrored in half a dozen other international organisations. Hard fought diplomatic battles over sharks are becoming a common feature in the meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, as a number of countries are now arguing that because many national and regional controls to regulate shark fisheries are failing, that a number of species of sharks should not be the subject to international trade.
The problem of shark conservation in New Zealand is complicated by the fact that around 80 per cent of these sharks are caught solely for their fins, and their bodies are then dumped back at sea. This harvesting method is both wasteful and cruel if the sharks are dumped back into the ocean whilst alive.
Whilst New Zealand does not allow the dumping of live sharks once their fins have been removed, there are questions over how well that rule is being enforced.
Where we are at variance with international opinion is the dumping of 98 per cent of the dead shark, whilst retaining only the 2 found in the fin. The practice of finning is remarkably wasteful. It is the opposite of any goals at waste minimisation of bycatch.
It also makes the identification of the shark difficult, and thus claims about the sustainability of the catch, robust. When these shark parts are then shipped into an international market place, we are not helping the creation of verifiable sustainable practices. Due to such concerns, the practice of shark finning has been roundly condemned through international organisations of which New Zealand is a member, the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the United Nations. In the last instance, the UN called upon all countries to, "take immediate and concerted action to ... regulate shark fisheries, in particular those measures which prohibit or restrict fisheries conducted solely for the purpose of harvesting shark fins, and, where necessary, to consider taking other measures, as appropriate, such as requiring that all sharks be landed with each fin naturally attached". From such a clear international position, at least 98 countries in the world, including Australia, the United States, and the European Union, have now prohibited shark finning. New Zealand is not one of these countries.
The debate about the conservation of sharks will get louder in years to come. At the international level, it can be expected that restrictions on the trade in shark species will heighten. For a country such as New Zealand, this is an opportunity that can be played to our benefit.
The opportunity will be where it can be verified and documented, that each shark taken from New Zealand waters was taken from a sustainable stock, and that it was brought back to shore with its fins naturally attached. If this is not done, the converse will be the rule. It will be bad for the sharks, bad for conservation, and bad for the reputation of New Zealand.
Alexander Gillespie is professor of Law at Waikato University and author of Conservation, Biodiversity and International Law, Elgar Publishing, London, 2012.