Wildlife or food?

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“Whales have become wildlife, but tuna remain food,” writes author and fisher Paul Greenberg.

As Kate Evans recounts in this issue’s cover story on tuna, whales shifted from ‘food’ to ‘wildlife’ not because people discovered an environmental conscience, or a new appreciation for the animals’ intelligence, but because the market for whale oil had collapsed. The oil was used to fuel lamps, to lubricate engines, and as an ingredient in an array of products as diverse as rope, soap, face moisturiser and margarine.

What counts as wildlife, pets or food changes across time, place and culture.

It seems like an innate quality of cats that we don’t eat them, and cows that we do, but the opposite applies elsewhere in the world.

“Food comes first, then morality,” says fisheries expert Francisco Blaha, quoting playwright Bertolt Brecht. Our understanding of what is wildlife and what is food is determined predominantly by necessity. New Zealanders are not necessarily more enlightened than the communities that still hunt whales for their meat, but we’re wealthier than almost all of them. Not everyone is in the position to turn food into wildlife or pets—or building materials into forests, for that matter.

This was epitomised when I approached Ngātiwai tohunga Hori Parata for a story on kauri dieback. His response boiled down to: “Why do you want to talk about a tree disease? We’re trying to deal with racism here.”

The question of protecting tuna—a challenge which spans cultures and nations—strikes at the heart of this issue. A fishery cannot simply be closed when a great part of the livelihood of several nations comes from that fishery.

The international cooperation that has seen the fortunes of southern bluefin reversed from dire to optimistic charts a path forward.

Less positive is New Zealand’s perspective on our Pacific neighbours: seen as a temporary labour force that can be hired and dismissed at will. During the immigration crackdown on Pasifika people in New Zealand in the 1970s, a brief amnesty was granted to Tongan workers—not because it was the right thing to do, but because the mass deportations threatened to shut down Auckland’s factories.

The government is about to apologise for holding and enforcing this view, but in some ways, this perspective remains. The seasonal migrant worker scheme operating today involves bringing Pacific islanders to New Zealand to fill job vacancies, but without granting them the rights of New Zealand residents.

This issue of New Zealand Geographic has a number of stories that encourage a shift in perspective. Is a forest made of trees and plants? Or is the real forest underground, in the soil, where a different kingdom of life acts as a subterranean control room, determining what grows above the surface?

Do human beings require jobs, communities, homes, possessions to be happy? Nomadic couple Miriam Lancewood and Peter Raine are on a decade-long experiment to find out where the edges are—and where the search for independence meets the need for social participation.

This is the purpose of a magazine such as New Zealand Geographic: to point out that the world around us isn’t on the default setting. That the views we hold don’t represent the natural order of things. Our perspectives have been sculpted by the forces surrounding us, and they can be reshaped—but only once we recognise our that our perspective is a limited view of reality.

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