Shark diving in the ‘wild west’ after court ruling

The paua industry has been concerned about shark cage operators increasing the likelihood of an attack.

The High Court at Wellington has ruled that the Department of Conservation isn’t authorised to issue licenses to shark cage divers, leaving the now-unregulated industry in a state of uncertainty.

The ruling was made in a case between PauaMAC5, which represents the commercial paua industry, and the director-general of conservation and two shark diving companies.

Up until now, DoC has issued licenses to shark cage operators on the basis that they adhere to the Wildlife Act 1953 but the paua industry said public safety should be taken into consideration too.

The paua industry was concerned about shark cage operators using bait to attract the animals near Stewart Island and changing their behaviour to associate boats with food, increasing the likelihood of an attack.

The two shark diving companies, Shark Dive NZ and Shark Experience, argued, among other things, sharks have always been around Stewart Island so it was a natural occupational risk to divers.

DoC argued it should only have to take into account the welfare of the sharks.

Justice Karen Clark’s judgment said DoC isn’t authorised to issue the licenses, meaning the licenses are invalid and that anyone can go shark diving (as long as they don’t break other provisions in the Animal Welfare Act).

PauaMAC5 chairman Storm Stanley says if DoC accepts the decision and doesn’t appeal, the shark diving industry is now the “wild west,” which reinforces the need for Parliament to legislate.

“[The judge] has said because she finds DoC can’t permit the activity, there’s no point in her making a decision on whether they have to take into account the safety of other water users,” Mr Stanley says.

“She hasn’t dismissed the declaration we sought.”

He says the issue is now “further down the road” to being resolved.

A DoC spokeswoman said there will be no comment until it has had time to consider the ruling.

Read the decision here.

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