Cultural sensitivity versus science

The discovery of a dead minke whale on the beach at Goat Island on May 10 was a sad affair (see story). Estimated to weigh about eight tonnes, heavy machinery had to be brought in to remove the animal from the beach to an undisclosed burial spot. While minke whales are not uncommon in our waters, they do not often wash up on our beaches.

Therefore, the decision by the Department of Conservation (DOC) to comply with a request from Ngati Manuhiri to bury the body rather than allow an  autopsy  seems regrettable.

The decision means we will never know what caused the whale’s death. Was it natural causes, a boat strike or disease, or did it starve to death after ingesting too much plastic which, sadly, is not uncommon. What we would have learned from the examination would have added to our collective knowledge of these amazing creatures and could also perhaps have helped in their conservation. It was a missed opportunity.

Whales hold a lot of mana for Maori, as they do for many cultures around the world. For centuries, they have inspired legends, art, stories, music and so much more. But no matter how strong a connection we might feel towards them, no single group can claim ownership over them. They are free to gracefully roam the oceans of the world unburdened by any responsibility to be anything other than themselves.

When it comes to the law, the buck stops with DOC. But they are expected to work in partnership with iwi, which is entirely appropriate. It seems this recent case highlights a need for greater guidance for both parties – DOC needs to stand firm on its principles to deliver the best outcomes for the natural environment and iwi need to understand that some cultural practises may need to be massaged a little to accommodate these outcomes. By all means place a rahui on the beach and ensure the whale is properly and respectfully buried after the autopsy. But let’s not let cultural sensitivity practices blind us to the bigger picture – that we show our marine animals the most respect when we do our very best to care for them and their environments, which sometimes means science must come first.

Note: Given that other iwi do allow for autopsies to be conducted on whales, Mahurangi Matters asked Ngati Manuhiri for more detail on the specific cultural sensitivities that were at play in this case. We did not receive a reply by the time the paper went to print.