Keep starfish off the barbecue: New Zealanders call for rockpool protections | New Zealand

New Zealanders are calling for authorities to restrict the pillaging of the country’s rockpools and shorelines, amid fears that a taste for shellfish, limpets, octopuses and barbecued starfish is disrupting ecosystems and driving some species toward extinction.

Around the North Island, local groups and iwi (Māori tribes) have been lobbying for temporary bans on gathering from rockpools and shorelines, with claims people have been indiscriminately harvesting bucketfuls of creatures and barbecuing them on the beach.

“The rockpools used to be full of anemones and shrimp and all sorts of sea creatures, teeming with crabs and starfish, but now there’s virtually nothing,” said Mary Coupe, leader of advocacy group Save the Rock Pools Committee, which has been campaigning for greater restrictions on rockpool harvesting in the Omaha region, about 75km north of Auckland.

Coupe says she frequently sees large groups equipped with “hammers, wire, screwdrivers, you know, just taking anything off the rockpools … bowls of starfish and periwinkles, bowls of limpets, absolutely all sorts,” she said.

New Zealand has long-held traditions of gathering seafood, but some shoreline populations are under stress, facing combined pressure from over-harvesting, dredging and pollution.

The most recent scallop survey by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) indicated 93% of the Hauraki Gulf’s harvest-size scallop population disappeared 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 cockle populations.

A number of iwi around the country share concerns that the rockpools 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 Waiheke Island, Herearoha Skipper, a trustee of Ngāti Pāoa Iwi trust, wrote to government asking for enforcement of a rahui. “We believe if nothing is done urgently our mātaitai [shellfish], our kaimoana [seafood] beds will not only be severely depleted, but will reach the point of collapse,” she writes.

The tribe’s elders have witnessed this loss over recent decades, she says, describing once-rich bays where crayfish are now regarded as functionally extinct, scallop beds destroyed by dredging and over-harvesting, emaciated mussels and disappearing pāua.

“Within a century, the coastal water surrounding Waiheke … has been decimated and is near total collapse. My mokopuna [grandchildren] will not have the same experiences I had as a child growing up on Waiheke, in which the kaimoana [seafood] was our main food source,” says.

The tribe is calling for urgent action “so that future generations would not suffer the catastrophic loss of cultural practice, biodiversity and ecosystem collapse we are faced with today”.

In the Coromandel region, Ngāti Hei also petitioned for a rahui, saying: “Urgent action is required before scallop beds become so diminished that generations yet unborn will not even know the area was once not so long ago abundant with scallops.”

While rahui requests were granted in the Coromandel and Waiheke, Coupe’s petition was turned down, as the government said it failed represent local iwi. Ngāti Manuhiri chief executive Nicola McDonald told Stuff the that the trust was making its own application for a ban.

Marine scientist and associate professor Candida Savage said shellfish were often crucial for entire shoreline ecosystems. “Shellfish play a critical role in the health of the estuaries,” she said. Preserving them was “of prime benefit to humans but also for other organisms in these estuaries and inlets”.

Some shorelines and shellfish were under pressure from multiple threats, Savage said – heatwaves could cause mass die-offs, farm or industrial pollution could hurt their health, and large numbers of people harvesting could also place them under threat.

“Individual stressors might not be so great, but collectively with a whole group of people doing that repeatedly, that can cause a decline in populations.” Even when bans are instituted, Savage said, “to restore these populations if they are lost or if they’ve significantly declined, it’s quite a long-term process”.

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