Tue, Jan 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

New Zealand’s Maori tribes fearful over rising whale mortality

Traditional whale whisperers worry that anthropogenic changes in the sea are behind a spike in whale beachings, but said their spiritual solutions go unheard

By Eleanor Ainge Roy  /  The Guardian

Whale whisperer Hori Parata was just seven years old when he attended his first mass stranding, a beaching of porpoises in New Zealand’s Northland, their cries screeching through the air on the deserted stretch of sand.

Seven decades later, Parata, 75, has now overseen more than 500 strandings and is renowned in New Zealand as the leading Maori whale expert, called on by tribes around the country for cultural guidance as marine strandings become increasingly complex and fatal.

“Man’s greed in the ocean is hurting the whales,” said Parata, a fierce and uncompromising elder of the Ngatiwai tribe of eastern Northland.

Hori Parata at his Ptaua farm, the place where he was born and grew up

“We’re having to put up with a lot of stuff today. The public want to hug the whales, they want to touch them, they want to feel good — that’s not the thing. We feel that is ridiculous,” Parata said.

Whale experts regard New Zealand — or Aotearoa, as it is called by Maori — as the whale stranding capital of the world, with more than 5,000 incidents recorded since 1840 and an average of 300 individual animals beaching themselves each year.

Concrete information on why whales strand remains elusive, but “sickness, navigational error, geographical features, a rapidly falling tide, being chased by a predator or extreme weather” are all thought to contribute, the New Zealand Department of Conservation said.

Climate change is also to blame, with warming ocean temperatures moving whales’ prey closer to the shore and forcing them to pursue their food into shallow waters, scientists have said.

November marked the beginning of whale stranding season and it started with a surge in incidents, with 140 pilot whales beaching and dying on Stewart Island, 10 rare pygmy whales on Ninety Mile Beach, 51 stranded and dead on the Chatham Islands, and a spate of individual cases around the country, whale rescue group Project Jonah said.

As more whales beach and die — from exhaustion, heat stroke or seagulls feasting on their flesh — an acute sense of grief is growing among New Zealand’s indigenous people, who regard whales as their ancestors and taonga (treasures).

“These days it is like a zoo. People just want to come and gawk at us, without even trying to understand what is happening with the animals and the environment,” Parata said, bristling with anger.

“When will we talk about what is hurting these animals out on the sea? They are drowning out there, they can’t breathe, they beach themselves to be with the Aunties,” he said.

Ngatiwai believe that the whales beach when they are ready to die and want to return to their families, the Maori people. Then, their human families use the whales’ gift of their bodies for sacred carvings, for traditional medicines and even for compost.

There are marked tribal differences across New Zealand and while some tribes work to refloat stranded whales, others, like Parata’s Ngatiwai, stand back and allow the conservation department and volunteer groups to take the lead in rescue efforts.

Then the tribe moves in en masse and holds a karakia (prayer), names each animal and sets to work removing their bones, blubber, eyes and teeth for cultural purposes.

However, indigenous elders said that they are not being listened to when they tell the government that their whale kin are sick, and trying to escape an increasingly polluted and unpredictable ocean.

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