Aotearoa New Zealand consists of two islands and around 70 species of sharks are found in their waters. Discover why sharks are our kin and how their wellbeing is interconnected to the health of the environment.
About 800,000 people who identify as Māori live in Aotearoa New Zealand and another 140,000 live in Australia.
The country consists of two main islands – Te Ika-a-Māui (Maui’s fish) the North Island and Te Waipounamu (waters of jade) the South Island.
Around 70 species of sharks are found in New Zealand's waters. They range from the tiny Pygmy to White, Mako and giant Whale Sharks
Tāne, who is the god of the forest and the trees and all the creatures that dwell in that space, he was also in charge of putting the family of light, Te whānau mārama, into the sky. He had three baskets. These three baskets, the first basket held the sun, the second basket held the moon, and the final basket held all of the stars. And he thought, I'm going to place these stars in positions and shapes, and he began to hang the big stars, the major constellation that look like they're in shapes and patterns in the sky. And he was so thrilled with what he'd completed, that after hanging the major stars, he put the rest of the basket at his feet and he was in the heavens and he began to do a haka. He began to celebrate by dancing and getting very vigorous and he was throwing his hands out and he kicked his foot out and knocked the basket over. And the stars fell out of the basket like a giant shark with all its scales and all its skin glittering. And so when you look up into the night sky and you'll see Te Mangōroa, we also know it, our galaxy, the Milky Way.
So that connection to Te Mangōroa, or the Great Shark, or the great fish is really deeply rooted in the origins of our night sky and the cosmos and how Maori understand it to be. And that incantation, that karakia states: Ringihia i te kete ko te ikanui o te rangi. Falling and spilling out of the basket was this great shark, Ka ngaro kei runga ra, who was lost into the cosmos. Tihei mauri ora.
Sharks were seen as warriors. Warriors of the ocean and Maori warriors would like to use those symbols and to personify themselves, it's even in our language. We'll say something like "Okea ururoatia!" Battle anything as you are a shark, in the way that a shark fights. And so they would take the teeth of the shark and hang it off the ears and around their neck as a symbol of the prowess of that animal that they would like to be an example of. So that was one of the reasons why they would wear those symbols. It was to honour that animal and honour the courage and the spirit of that animal. Likewise, it would be carved into the walls of houses, or on houses, symbolising at times the fierceness of a group of people, the pride of a group of people. And also their flesh was prized. Dried shark meat was something that coastal people would trade with, like my people inland for birds, and we would trade for dried shark, which traditionally was a delicacy.
So this is the mangōpare shape of the hammerhead shark, which is a symbol of strength, but not just physical strength, that's the strength of your heritage. So when we look at this, you see all of the hammerhead shark shapes there. So this shows an ancestor and then coming down to further ancestry through my family until it arrives at me. So this is me here.
We see a lot of stuff. We see things like, ship goes past in the night and then the next day we're traveling through their waste. We sailed through one of these places one time when there was very little wind and we were stuck in this, horrible, oily effluent that was just riding on the ocean. And you start to think things like, wow, there's only one ship does this? How many more ships are there out there doing the same thing? We see things like huge ropes and things floating in the ocean. Sometimes you might see plastic bottles and stuff out there. Our world leaders need to rethink about how their commitment towards our future generations will look in the next 20 years. When Tangaroa his children, the fish start to disappear. If life doesn't become sustainable within the ocean, then it has to become sustainable on the land, and if we replicate what we do to the ocean on the land, we're basically making this planet uninhabitable.
Largest Glowing Shark Species Discovered Near New Zealand ran as the headline in the New York Times on 5 March 2021. 'It’s the biggest bioluminescent vertebrate found on land or sea, so far.’
The shark attracting attention was the Kitefin Shark, Dalatias licha, a species that grows to almost 2m long. Scientists who led an expedition off the coast of New Zealand discovered that Kitefin Sharks emit blue-green light.
The team confirmed that melatonin activates bioluminescence in Kitefin Sharks, as it does in other glowing sharks. Other hormones turn it off. No one knows yet what triggers the action and control of these hormones. Tiny Lanternsharks also glow.
Taniwha are supernatural, fearsome creatures in Māori tradition, similar to serpents and dragons in other cultures.
They were said to hide in the ocean, rivers, lakes or caves.
For Māori in the far north of Aotearoa, the ocean Taniwha Ruamano took the form of a Mako Shark. Although he looked ﬁerce, he protected the local people. If a waka (canoe) overturned, the crew called upon Ruamano to deliver them safely to land.
The Mangopare symbol shows the Hammerhead Shark. It symbolises strength, determination, strong will and fighting spirit.
Māori believe sharks to be protective spirits, and shark tooth earrings are common status symbols among leaders.
Kia mate wheke kie mate ururoa!
Don't die like an octopus, die like a Hammerhead Shark!
Shark liver oil
Shark liver oil was used to mix pigment for paint. It was combined with burnt wood to make the black used for ta moko (tatooing); red ochre clay for painting wharenui (meeting houses) and clay taioma (white clay) used for houses.
This woman’s moko kauae (female facial tattoo) was made using paint pigment mixed with shark liver oil.
The shark tooth earrings worn by this woman were probably came from a Mako or White shark.
Similar to Tongan practice, Māori would lasso Mako Sharks with ropes and ride behind the sharks until they tired.
Rope was used so that the shark’s teeth weren’t damaged, and could be used for weapons, necklaces and earrings.
Sharks as Kai (food)
In old times, fishing was tapu (sacred). Fishermen would offer prayers to Tangaroa, the god of the sea and fish, before setting out in their canoes.
Sharks were an important part of the Māori diet. They were caught using hooks, harpoons and sometimes nets made of green flax.
One of the northern iwi (tribes), Te Rarawa, had two days each year for shark fishing. People catching sharks on any other days were stripped of their property.
A large expedition could catch thousands of sharks at one time. These would be taken ashore and dried in the sun on racks – some up to 400m long.
Early European travellers reported that fishing villages could be smelt up to 13km away. This scene, painted by Charles Heaphy in about 1850, records a small-scale operation.
Shark in the sky
To Māori, the diety Māui caught Te Māngōroa (shark) and threw it into the sky where it formed the Milky Way galaxy.
In another version:
Tāne Mahuta was the god of the forest and the trees and all the creatures. He was also in charge of putting the family of light, Te Whānau Mārama, into the sky. He climbed into the heavens with three baskets. The first held the sun, the second the moon and the final basket held all of the stars.
Tāne began to hang the big stars; the major constellations that look like they're in shapes and patterns in the sky. He was so thrilled with what he had done that he put the basket down and began to do a haka. He kicked his foot out and knocked the basket over and it is said that the stars fell out like a giant fish or a giant shark, and it swam away into the cosmos.
This is Te Māngaroa. We also know it as our galaxy, the Milky Way.
Ngati Kahungunu, Rangitane Iwi (Māori tribe), adults and children in traditional dress, formed up in front of a wharenui (meeting house) in Whakaoriori (Masterton).
The wharenui is a simple structure with a roof covered with lengths of bark. The rau awa (barge boards) are decorated with paintings.
The board on the right shows two men in a canoe, one of whom has caught a large ﬁsh. Māui is written below the depiction. The left board is a ﬁsh below which are the words Māui Mua Māui Roto (left forward, left within).
[Sharks] are actually our kin and therefore we have a responsibility to ensure their wellbeing. Yes, we take them at times as a food source, but it's part of this much bigger connected and interconnected understanding of environment.