Marine life booms, with a helping hand

overview w kuku

The west coast of New Zealand.

Whakarongo! Ki te tangi a te manu

Listen! The cry of the bird/the orator

Maori waiata (song)

By Mary Gardner

The words of the Maori waiata do not rest on paper but reach out, making my nerves taut with excitement. With my inner ear, I always hear how the singers open for the speakers that follow.

The Maori tradition sets a high standard for public speaking. The calls of birds are conflated with the speeches of orators. Every audience considers how well public words sing in human hearts. Compared to birdsong, are they as powerful, as informative, as moving?

Over the last two weeks, after a decade absence, I was again In Aotearoa/New Zealand. Urban Auckland sprawls across the isthmus but only tendrils reach into the West Coast. Forty minutes by car from downtown are the Waitakere Ranges, supporting the people of Te Kawerau a Maki.

The temperate rainforest is still regenerating, protected as the city’s water supply and managed as a regional park, accessed by millions of visitors. Small contemporary villages within the ranges include Bethells, Piha and Karekare.

On the steep coastal walking trail called the Coman’s, the view south is of Karekare’s black sands. These merge with that of the Pararaha Valley and the Whatipu Peninsula.

The rocky island is Paratahi. Since mid-1990s, the nearshore current deposited great quantities of sand. The beach is broader and the coastal rocks buried. During the low tide, people can now walk out to Paratahi, climb to the top and share the views with the fur seals.

The base of Paratahi is covered with wild kuku, the famous green mussel Perna canaliculus. For centuries, these shellfish were food for Maori and later, the European settlers. They are also a well-recognised export product: in the shell, frozen or bottled in brine.

Since the 1970s, the shellfish have been farmed using the long line techniques first developed by the Japanese. Now, over 140 tonnes of shellfish are harvested each year.

In the 21st century, the supply of young oysters for NSW shellfish farms are from scientifically managed hatcheries. By contrast, 80 per cent of the entire cultivated kuku industry relies on wild spat (baby shellfish). These are found in seaweed cast on the far northern beaches. Their origin is still the secret of the sea god Tangaroa and that of his wife, Te Anu-matao. All marine life is born of them.

Since 1993, the kuku at Paratahi are undisturbed because of the ban on shell-fishing. Te Kawerau, village residents and fisheries ministers all support the ban. When the ban was first set, cynics pointed at the shifting sand smothering shellfish on the rocks. But as the sand made the once remote island more accessible, the value of the ban was unexpectedly renewed.

These wild shellfish remind people of what was once the common wealth: seafood for the easy taking. Many Aucklanders reminisce about harvesting meals of kuku, pipi (Paphies australas) and tuangi (Austrovenus stutchburyii).

On the east side of the Auckland isthmus, in the Hauraki Gulf, Aucklanders took a hard look at the 100-year history of commercial fishing in the Gulf. This industry began in 1910 with the relentless dredging of sub-tidal mussels. By 1965, the shellfish beds collapsed.

The water quality declined as few shellfish remained to filter and clean the water. Without the habitat and food provided by wild shellfish, stocks of other marine life diminished. But Aucklanders shifted from nostalgia to action. They set out to rebuild the shellfish reefs.

Since 2014, their Mussel Reef Restoration Trust introduced over 70 tonnes of adult shellfish. Most are now part of a bed larger than eight rugby fields. University researchers are examining how marine life are taking to this habitat.

The enhancement program is, like the commercial fishing was, a multi-generational effort. It is one of several projects all aiming to revive the Gulf.

These efforts range from mapping the seabed, ‘no take’ marine reserves and protection for whales, other marine mammals and sharks.

Instead of calculating how many fish to harvest each season, one project investigates how many fish should remain in the sea so the marine world can thrive.

From how far can the cries of a seabird be heard? The gannets that dive here in the waters of Byron shire nest on rock ledges of the West Coast in the Waitakere Ranges. With their every cry come words from across the shared ocean.

One response to “Marine life booms, with a helping hand”

  1. Mary, your so brief visit here to NZ has spawned such a warm and informative story of Auckland. Leaves me marveling at where you found the time to assimilate all that detail in your hectic catch-up 2weeks. Byron is indeed lucky to have your regular ecology commentary.

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