A New Zealand Court has enforced a 65-year-old law banning shark cage diving, prompting tourism bodies to go on the attack.
The decision follows a long-running dispute between a group of paua divers from Stewart Island, the Department of Conservation and shark diving companies Shark Experience and Shark Dive New Zealand.
While local divers have welcomed the ruling, Tourism Industry Aotearoa says it is based on “outdated” legislation and is calling on the government to swiftly amend the Wildlife Protection Act.
The Court of Appeal ruled shark cage diving was not allowed under the 1950s Act, which bans hunting and killing protected wildlife.
It found that the Act’s definition of ‘hunting and killing’ extended to pursuing, disturbing and molesting, even when there was no intention to hunt and kill.
And it ruled that cage diving disturbed the sharks, despite the activity previously being approved by the Department of Conservation.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa CEO Chris Roberts said: “Parliament should urgently pass a simple clarifying amendment to the Wildlife Act. Shark cage diving activity should then be managed by a permit system to ensure safe operations. It should not be banned outright.”
But Paua Industry Council CEO Jeremy Cooper welcomed the ruling, arguing shark cage diving “should never have been allowed to happen from day one”.
“It makes absolute sense, you know, people’s safety and changing shark behaviour has been well documented now so let’s hope that’s the end of it,” he said.
Shark diving began near Stewart Island in late 2007 in waters where great white sharks are common due to the large number of fur seal colonies.
Many locals argue the activity is causing sharks to behave more aggressively around the island.
The Court of Appeal noted the ruling placed Shark Experience and Shark Dive New Zealand “in a very difficult position through no fault of their own” and concluded it was “up to parliament to consider whether these activities should be permitted by amending legislation that provides for authorisation with the clarity of modern drafting norms”.
Mr Roberts argues shark cage diving is undertaken safely around the world, and there is international evidence that, if well managed, it does not change the behaviour of sharks.
“These shark cage dive operators have invested heavily in building their businesses, in a region where tourism is a key part of the economic development plan,” he said.
“The Wildlife Act is 65 years old and is being applied to an activity that was never envisaged at the time the Act was passed.
“These two successful businesses have been operating since 2008 and should not be suddenly deemed illegal and put out of business on the basis of legislation that the Court says is ‘not fit for purpose’.”