New Zealanders are calling on authorities to curb looting of the country’s rock pools and shorelines, fearing the taste of grilled shellfish, limpets, octopus and starfish could disrupt ecosystems and drive some species down extinction.
Around the North Island, local groups and iwi (Maori tribes) have lobbied for a temporary ban on picking from rock pools and shorelines, saying people were indiscriminately harvesting buckets of creatures and grilling them on the beach.
“The rock pools used to be filled with anemones, shrimp and all kinds of sea creatures, teeming with crabs and starfish, but now there’s hardly anything left,” said group leader Mary Coupe. advocacy group Save the Rock Pools Committee, which is campaigning for greater restrictions on the exploitation of rock pools in the Omaha region, about 75 km north of Auckland.
Coupe says she frequently sees large groups equipped with “hammers, wires, screwdrivers, you know, taking anything out of rock pools… bowls of starfish and periwinkles, bowls of limpets, absolutely. all kinds,” she said.
New Zealand has a long tradition of seafood harvesting, but some local people are under pressure, facing the combined pressure of over-harvesting, dredging and pollution.
The most recent scallop survey conducted by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) indicated that 93% of the Hauraki Gulf crop-size scallop population has extinct in the decade to 2021. The 2020 State of the Gulf Report found that kōura (crayfish) were functionally extinct in some areas, and recorded a universal decline in cockle populations.
A number of iwi across the country fear rock pools and foreshores will be emptied for future generations and are calling for rahui – a traditional practice of banning the gathering of certain foods to allow populations to replenish.
On the island of Waiheke, Herearoha Skipper, a trustee of the Ngāti Pāoa Iwi trust, wrote to the government asking for the application of a rahui. “We believe that if nothing is done urgently, our mātaitai [shellfish]our kaimoana [seafood] not only will the beds be severely depleted, but they will reach the point of collapse,” she wrote.
Tribal elders have witnessed this loss in recent decades, she says, describing once-rich bays where crayfish are now considered functionally extinct, scallop beds destroyed by dredging and overharvesting, mussels emaciated and endangered pāua.
“In a century, the coastal waters surrounding Waiheke… have been decimated and have almost completely collapsed. my mocopuna [grandchildren] won’t have the same experiences I had as a kid in Waiheke, in which the kaimoana [seafood] was our main source of food,” says.
The tribe calls for urgent action “so that future generations do not experience the catastrophic loss of cultural practices, biodiversity and ecosystem collapse that we face today.”
In the Coromandel region, Ngāti Hei also called for a rahui, saying, “Urgent action is needed before scallop beds dwindle so much that future generations won’t even know the area was once abundant in scallops.
While rahui’s requests were granted in the Coromandel and Waiheke, the Cup petition was rejected, as the government said it did not represent local iwi. Ngāti Manuhiri’s chief executive, Nicola McDonald, told Stuff that the trust was making its own request for a ban.
Marine scientist and associate professor Candida Savage said shellfish are often crucial to entire coastal ecosystems. “Shellfish play a vital role in the health of estuaries,” she said. Preserving them was “of primary interest for humans but also for other organisms in these estuaries and inlets”.
Some shorelines and shellfish were under pressure from multiple threats, Savage said — heat waves could cause mass deaths, agricultural or industrial pollution could harm their health, and large numbers of people harvesting could also put them at risk. .
“Individual stressors may not be that important, but collectively, with a whole group of people repeatedly doing this, it can cause populations to decline.” Even when bans are instituted, Savage said, “to restore those populations if they’re lost or have drastically declined, it’s a long-term process.”