It's been an inauspicious week on oceans here in New Zealand. On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired an investigation ( http://bit.ly/60minutessharkfinning ) into a lesser-known corner of New Zealand's fishing industry: Shark finning. Defying a global movement towards shark conservation, which is being lead by small Pacific Island countries with far fewer resources that we have, New Zealand continues to allow shark finning by our boats in our waters. Many New Zealanders are shocked to know that this brutal and wasteful practice happens on Kiwi boats and in our own waters – and that dried shark fin is on sale bearing the endorsement “product of New Zealand”.
This scandal was followed by news that our precious Maui's dolphin is even closer to extinction's door that we realised. The small dolphin is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and is under threat from bycatch in fishing nets . The latest survey estimates the remaining population at only 55 dolphins. New Zealand has brought species back from this close to extinction before – such as the famous Chatham Islands black robin – but unless set nets are urgently banned from Maui's dolphin areas, the species doesn't stand a chance (you can take action here). The alternative is the very real prospect of having to front up to the world and admit that we've allowed a species to be wiped off the face of the earth.
As if that wasn't enough bad news for one week, today the Minister of Fisheries announced his decision on southern bluefin tuna. The Minister, in all his wisdom, has approved an increase in New Zealand's catch of southern bluefin tuna, despite the fact that the species is also critically endangered and scientists advise that 95% of the breeding stock (spawning stock biomass) has already been wiped out. Not only does that impact upon critically endangered bluefin tuna, it also further threatens sharks: New Zealand's bluefin tuna longline fishery is actually as much a shark fishery as it is a tuna fishery (around half the catch is tuna and half sharks), and many of the sharks caught have their fins hacked off and their bodies dumped back to sea.
This is what has happened to southern bluefin tuna over the past fifty years: A decline to five percent of its original population size.
And on that alarming backdrop, the New Zealand government has responded by ramping up catch limits year after year at a time when other countries are reducing their catches. New Zealand's catch limit was 420 tonnes in 2008-2009 season, and after three years in a row of bumping that figure up, it now sits at almost twice that level: Today the Minister announced 800 tonnes of critically endangered southern bluefin can be caught in New Zealand waters this season.
This has definitely not been a good week for the creatures swimming New Zealand's seas, nor for this country's reputation as a responsible guardian of fisheries and ocean life. Tangaroa would not be impressed.