10 Facts about Sharks and Rays

Oceanic white tip shark
© Elke Bojanowski / WWF-HK
Fascinating Facts


Sharks and their relatives - skates and rays – are a large subclass of cartilaginous fish (they have skeletons made from soft cartilage rather than bone) called elasmobranchs with over hundreds of different species.


While closely related, sharks which have the body shape typical of fishes, look quite different from rays and skates which have a flattened body shape, with broad, wing-like pectoral fins. 


While skates and rays look quite similar, skates tend to be smaller, have a shorter tail and lack the venomous barb many rays have.


New Zealand waters, from shores to the open and deep seas, are home many elasmobranchs, including the world’s largest shark – the whale shark (pictured below) which occur in New Zealand’s warmer waters over summer (November to March).


A lot of shark species are named after other animals. Dogfish and catsharks are two large families of sharks but there are also smooth-hounds, the porbeagle and the smalltooth sand tiger. The smalltooth sand tiger shark is native to New Zealand, found in deep water around the upper North Island and Kermadec Ridge. 

Whale shark seen under whale shark fin
© Vincent Kneefel / WWF

Whale Shark


Most sharks, rays and skates found in Aotearoa are harmless. Even the predators don’t typically attack humans. According to DOC in the 180 years before 2020, there have only been 15 fatal shark attacks documented in New Zealand.


New Zealand rays, particularly the eagle ray, short-tailed and long-tailed stingray and electric ray, are unfortunate to share their habitat with New Zealand orca who are unusually adept and partial to hunting rays.


Shark and ray populations around the world are in rapid decline. Fishing activities, particularly overfishing, bycatch and ship strikes, as well as climate change are pushing some species to the brink of extinction.


Elasmobranchs are particularly vulnerable to the impact of harmful human activity because they are long-lived, slow to mature and produce relatively few young. 


The oceanic whitetip shark (pictured at the top of the page) used to be the most common shark species in the open ocean. However, their global population has declined by over 95% since 1970. Within New Zealand waters they are protected under the Wildlife Act 1953 and the Fisheries Act 1996.

Help protect our sharks and rays

By making a donation, you can help protect sharks and rays in New Zealand and the Pacific. Your support will help us increase marine protection, make fishing more sustainable and reduce fishing bycatch.