Warning: This report contains some disturbing images.
With Brigitte Masters
Every year in New Zealand thousands of sharks are dumped back in the ocean after having only their fins cut off. Critics say it's barbaric and incredibly wasteful.
Now the Government is about to ask the public what it thinks should be done to protect sharks, and new rules covering finning are likely.
Blue sharks are the most commonly caught species of migratory shark in New Zealand. They're usually hauled in as by-catch on tuna vessels.
But rather than being released, most have their fins cut off before the rest is thrown back. Shark scientist Riley Elliott says it shouldn't happen.
“Basically you cut the fins off the shark and you dump the body back,” says Mr Elliott. “And that's a 95 percent waste of the animal. It's a huge, huge waste.”
Mr Elliott has been in the water attaching satellite tags to blue sharks in an effort to learn more about the apex predator. He says they're one of the species most at risk.
“The data up till now just isn't there or the accuracy of the data isn't there. So trends in biomass, effective sustainability, the actual stock of these animals is all unknown.”
The Government says it gets information on blue shark numbers by comparing commercial catch rates.
But its own report states: “There have been no quantitative stock assessments of blue sharks in New Zealand waters and no quantitative stock assessments are possible with the current data."
“We manage with the information we have here now, and I recognise that there is room for improvement in the information base,” says the Ministry for Primary Industries’ fisheries director James Stevenson-Wallace. “But we do have enough information at the moment to manage these species.”
Last year, New Zealand exported more than 160 tonnes of shark fins, of which 60 tonnes would have come from the blue shark – mako or porbeagle.
Most of the fins end up in East Asia, where they're used to make shark fin soup.
“The practice is the equivalent to rhino horning or elephant tusking, where you are cutting off the smallest amount of the animal and throwing the rest away,” says Mr Elliott.
Finning is legal in New Zealand, providing the shark is killed first. Greenpeace says it's damaging the country's image.
“We are really behind our Pacific neighbours and we're behind our trading partners like Australia, the US, the European Union,” says Greenpeace Oceans campaigner Karli Thomas. “All of these places already have shark finning bans.”
The ministry accepts more could be done to limit waste, particularly for off-shore species.
Blue sharks are particularly problematic. The ideal situation would be looking for utilisation opportunities, so exploring markets for shark flesh, so you are going for 100 percent utilisation of both the fins and the carcass.
Fins sold by New Zealand exporters last year made more than $4.5 million. But figures for the first part of this year suggest exports are down.
The public backlash against the practice is expected to force a rule change. But the Ministry for Primary Industries has hinted it won't necessarily lead to an outright ban.
The proposed changes will be made public later this month, when a document reviewing shark conservation is released.