Tag Archives: #New Zealand

River People

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From an environmentalist standpoint, it can be a challenge to apply laws made for humans to the natural world, especially when many of those laws deal with nature solely as property with no inherent legal rights.

Most environmental laws have been crafted to deal with regulating exploitation or protection, but always from the perspective of human requirements or exploitation of resources, land and nature.

Mouth of the Ganges.
Image: Zastavki

But just as the intellectual property rights that were crafted to protect commercial interests have come to be used as a tool to protect indigenous and traditional knowledge from being exploited by commercial interests, so to are laws that surround legal personhood – such as those that protect the interests of companies  and other legal entities – being used to redefine the natural world.

The high court in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand has handed down a ruling that designates the River Ganges as a legal person. This designation was then extended to the River Yamuna, as well as the rivers’ respective source glaciers, Gangotri and Yamunotri, as well as other natural landscapes such as lakes, meadows,  jungles, forests, wetlands, grasslands, springs, waterfalls, and air.

Whanganui River.
Photo: Māori Party

This process took place first in New Zealand with the Te Urewera, an area of forested hills in the north-east that used to be a national park, which became a person for legal purposes in 2014, and the Whanganui River, the country’s third largest, in March 2017.

There have long been cultural and religious beliefs that respect natural elements as gods, deities, living beings worthy of the same respect as any other living creature.

The use of Western-based jurisprudence in this way leverages the human language of ownership by bestowing the fundamental rights we articulate for legal entities upon elements of nature that cannot speak for themselves in a court of law.

It means that, for example, legal action against a factory polluting a river doesn’t require humans to have been harmed or property to have been damaged in order for a river to be considered injured by pollution. The fact that the river is considered invested with fundamental rights means action can be taken on behalf of the river itself.

Yamuna River near Kalindi Kunj.
Photo: Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO

It’s a keen strategy, and one that could be very promising. Some have been saying that the Ganges is now considered a person, with all attendant rights. Considering what we humans do to one another, even within the law, this might not be the highest achievement.

But the Ganges and the Yamuna, their sources, the Whanganui River and other ‘persons’ of nature might just be more like something the law consistently protected with more reliability than it has individual people: They are like a corporation or company, legal entities our jurisprudence systems take very good care of around the world.

Toothfish Piracy

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*Update below (July 29).

There are a couple of cinema-worthy chase scenes going on right now, all located in the Southern Ocean.

The New Zealand navy is currently chasing two ships sailing under the flag of Equatorial Guinea for illegal fishing, and a Sea Shepherd vessel has been chasing a Nigerian trawler, the Thunder, since December 17. The Sea Shepherd chase, over 1000 nautical miles at this point, has already broken the record for longest documented sea chase. And it’s not over.

So, what’s at the heart of this high seas drama?

Fish Artist: Si Scott

Fish
Artist: Si Scott

A deep-sea fish that was once deemed bland, ugly and unmarketable. It got its commercial start as a base for fish sticks. Later, its lack of overtly fishy flavor was turned to culinary advantage because chefs could do almost anything to it; what it lacked in strong flavor it made up for in flaky white flesh.

The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) was renamed the Chilean sea bass by an American fish merchant in 1977, and became truly popular in haute cuisine during the 1990s. Also known as White Gold, the fish otherwise known as toothfish can currently be found on the menus of high-end restaurants mainly in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Since luxury markets combined with scarcity usually mean high prices for a product, illegal fisheries have been chasing the toothfish for years now.

Patagonian toothfish Source: National Marine Fisheries Service

Patagonian toothfish
Source: National Marine Fisheries Service

A number of international initiatives were undertaken to protect the toothfish, an animal integral to a number of ecosystems. It reproduces slowly and has a long life span – up to 50 years, two factors that make it vulnerable to overfishing.

For me, the Patagonian toothfish, together with the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) also sold as Chilean sea bass, exemplify how difficult it can be to be a responsible consumer.

In the early 2000s, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) was estimated to account for up to 80% of all toothfish that was harvested. Recommendations to avoid Chilean sea bass in stores and restaurants have been cautiously revised because of the success of programs in fighting IUU fishing. The Marine Stewardship Council offers certification for sustainably fished toothfish, and provides possible purchase points.

And yet, we have two groups, a national navy and an environmental organization, in pursuit of industrial-scale operations fishing for what will be sold as Chilean sea bass. The poachers obviously have reliable markets to whom they can sell.

Chilean sea bass with the MSC label can generally be bought with confidence, but how often do we ask our restaurant servers or fishmongers whether the fish they are serving is appropriately labeled?

Levels of toothfish over-fishing (2013). Click on the image for a larger view. Source: Rochelle Price

Levels of toothfish over-fishing (2013).
Dark grey=quota levels, Red=estimated IUU catch. Click on the image for a larger view.
Source: Rochelle Price

 

* The Sea Shepherd’s spectacular chase only ended in April, with the crew of the Thunder allegedly sinking their own ship to destroy evidence – and then being rescued by crew members of the Sea Shepherd’s two pursuing ships. A riveting article in the New York Times provides more detail than I can here, and I encourage taking the time to read it.

The ships being pursued by the New Zealand navy have been found in Thailand and Cape Verde, respectively – renamed and reflagged.