Story: Sharks and rays

The Māori name mako is known worldwide – mako sharks are feared everywhere as fighters. A number of other shark and ray species live around New Zealand, and they are a fascinating family. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, while others appear outlandish, like the goblin shark with its overhanging snout. Down at the sea floor, rays skim along like caped villains.

Story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: A basking shark

Story summary

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New Zealand’s sharks

New Zealand has 70 known shark species, 26 skates and rays, and 12 chimaeras, or ghost sharks. New species are always being found, especially in very deep water. About 20 shark and ray species live only in New Zealand.

Sharks first appeared in the world’s oceans about 400 million years ago. Fossilised teeth and backbones have been discovered in New Zealand. They give us clues about the lifestyle and size of early sharks – most of them were large.

Māori and sharks

Māori thought highly of sharks. In myth, sharks came to the aid of ocean voyagers, and when the god Māui placed a shark in the sky, it formed Māngōroa – the Milky Way galaxy.

Sharks were prized catches, and their teeth were made into earrings or necklaces.

Sharks as food

Many New Zealanders eat shark in their fish and chips. Many tonnes of rig sharks, spiny dogfish and school sharks are caught every year in nets or by trawling. They end up being sold in markets in New Zealand or overseas.

Unusual sharks

Some sharks, especially those that live in very deep water, seem very strange. For example, cookie-cutter sharks have a glowing belly that attracts fish, and they bite circle-shaped chunks from the bodies of their prey.

Dangerous sharks

A few sharks are dangerous. In New Zealand, great white sharks, bronze whalers and mako sharks have attacked people. There have been attacks around Auckland, where the sea is warm and lots of people swim, and Dunedin, where there are plenty of seals – the favourite food of great white sharks.

Since the 1960s, shark nets have been set around Dunedin’s beaches to protect swimmers. This makes some swimmers feel safer. But sharks and other animals, such as dolphins, can die in the nets, and some people believe that the nets should be removed.


Some shark species risk dying out. Killing sharks for their fins or liver oil, which are used for food or medicine, is wasteful.

Rays and skates

Rays and skates are related to sharks. They have circular, flat bodies and a tail. Some can be harmful. Electric rays stun their prey with powerful electric shocks, and longtail rays have poisonous spines on their tails.

Chimaeras (ghost sharks)

Chimaeras are closely related to sharks and rays. Chimaeras seem strange-looking, with small mouths, large heads, bulging eyes and whip-like tails. They have also been given unusual names, such as elephant fish and longnose spookfish.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Sharks and rays', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 June 2006