Lost species, missing seaweed, dead eels: 40 years on the Taranaki coast

4:11 pm on 25 March 2023
Te Kāhui o Taranaki is backing hapū to work out how to protect the coast when the ban ends.

Te Kāhui o Taranaki is backing hapū to work out how to protect the coast when the ban ends. Photo: Te Korimako o Taranaki

A Parihaka kaumātua who patrols the Taranaki coast says it will take years to recover devastated marine ecosystems.

A legal ban on collecting shellfish, reinforcing an existing customary rāhui, extends from New Plymouth to Ōpunakē.

Another rāhui covers most of the coast from there to Hāwera, both prompted by car and busloads of visitors stripping reefs bare over the past few years.

But Te Whiti o Rongomai Mason, a great-great-grandson of the Parihaka prophet, has watched the decline for decades.

Now in his 70s, Mason spent much time as a child with his kuia who lived on the coast, when stocks of kaimoana were abundant.

He left for Wellington in 1971 and then returned in 1999.

"Once I came home and went down to the coast I just couldn't believe what I was looking at," he said.

"Because the seaweed had disappeared, just absolutely disappeared."

Bays that had been thick with various seaweeds and algae were bare - depriving marine creatures of food and shelter.

He first saw the decline when visiting home for tangihanga and watched it accelerate as the use of urea fertiliser on farms increased from the 1980s.

"Once urea came in and was put down on the farms it was leaching into the rivers. And I was also monitoring dead eels - you saw dead eels in the mouth of the rivers along our coastline."

Mason was taught tikanga for collecting kai by his kuia, who lived here on the coast near Cape Egmont.

Mason was taught tikanga for collecting kai by his kuia, who lived here on the coast near Cape Egmont. Photo: Te Korimako o Taranaki

Mason now travels along the Parihaka coast between the Waiweranui and Waitaha streams several times a week, checking reefs and pools, especially during the lowest tides.

He has detailed knowledge of the species that lived there during his youth, and said many of them have disappeared, including silver pāua and various mussels.

"Even the limpets, there are so many varieties of limpets. Everybody can see one limpet and think that's it but there's a whole variety of them. Like pūpū, there's a whole variety of them - half of them are gone."

Mason submitted drawings and descriptions of shellfish and other coastal species, including those now absent from the coast, for the application to the Oceans Minister for the legal ban.

"As a kid there used to be certain rocks and karekawa [Cook's turban shell] used to breed underneath them, thousands of them used to be under the rocks, but you hardly see them anymore - you're lucky to see one."

He said since the rāhui began he had seen a hint of seaweed recovery in one small location.

"Now I've seen one part of our beach down by the lighthouse, a certain seaweed that brings the pāua and everything back - and it disappeared, but now I see these little seedlings covering the reef again whereas they were bare before."

Mason said a natural recovery would take many years, but hopes scientists who have volunteered to help during the rāhui may be able to speed the recovery.

"We could get them to take a growth of that, take it away and plant it and regrow it - that's the only way they'll survive.

"It's the seaweed that brings everything back, not only kina and pāua but also brings back the limpets, sea snails, and all that and also what you normally find in the tidal pools, little shrimps and things like that."

Mason submitted detailed drawings of shellfish that were once common.

Mason submitted detailed drawings of shellfish that were once common. Photo: Te Korimako o Taranaki

Te Kāhui o Taranaki coordinated the application by hapū for the legal ban and is investing half a million dollars to work out more permanent protection when the ban is lifted.

Coastal assessments would provide evidence for likely applications to set up mahinga mātaitai. Mātaitai reserves allow traditional fishing under locally-determined rules, with commercial fishing usually banned.

Mason said tikanga he learned from the old people at Parihaka were intricate, strict, and seasonal, at odds with the assumption that people could go to the reefs whenever they wanted.

At a recent community meeting, it was suggested that legal rules allowing only the largest pāua to be taken didn't match traditional practice, with small shells found in local middens, suggesting larger pāua were left for breeding.

"A certain time of the year those pāua were collected, the small ones - they were collected in March - it was only then those small ones were collected," said Mason.

"We were shown which ones to take and which ones not to take so you left the bigger ones behind. You had a very small kete, like it could only fit about 10 in it, the small ones. Once that little kete was full that was it."

In some places, pāua could be taken from pools but ones under rocks were prohibited.

Mason says the rāhui has taken the pressure off the coast and will help, but pollution had to be controlled.

"Our rivers are the problem: it's a massive issue, so many little rivers and creeks along here, they are polluted."

"I'm still seeing dead eels - just the other day I was down there and saw four dead eels in the mouth of the river."

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs