Story: Mātaitai – shellfish gathering

Page 2. Traditional patterns of harvest

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Before going into the sea to gather food, the harvesters would say karakia (incantations) and prepare themselves for the activity. Some in Māhia would wash with the water from a particular spring before continuing to the nearby bay for their harvest. On their return home, they stopped again at the spring and repeated the washing and karakia ritual.

One elder from the East Coast said they were told to urinate on the basket before going to gather shellfish. A Ngāpuhi elder said the same was done with fishing nets.


Traditional seafood gathering was a serious undertaking, and the sea a place to be respected. Children were told not to yell or scream when visiting the beach. No seafood was opened on the reef or over the shellfish beds, or while one of the party was still in the water.

Gathering by species

Trips were made for a specific purpose, at the appropriate time for the intended harvest. If the trip was to gather pāua, then that was all that was taken. Separate trips would be made at the right time for taking kina (sea urchins) or crayfish.

Proven wisdom

It was customary to prohibit opening kina over the beds, because this could cause the remaining kina to move. A scientific study has confirmed that in fact kina can release an enzyme that results in other kina moving away from the area.

The kaitiaki

Each family and hapū controlled areas where they gathered seafood. They knew where crayfish frequented tunnels and holes in the rocks, the channels where kina and pāua were numerous, and where the pipi or tuatua bed was at the time for gathering.

If family from elsewhere wanted to collect seafood, they would visit the kaitiaki (guardian) to seek permission. They would often bring an offering that their relatives considered a treat – wild pork from inland, or oysters from a family in Raglan. The kaitiaki would then suggest the best place to gather shellfish. On their return, the visitors would leave some of their harvest for the kaitiaki.

Food exchange

The exchange of valued foods was a feature of hui (gatherings). Offerings would include baskets full of pipi, mussels, karengo, crayfish – whatever their traditional food was. The host tribe would also provide an abundance of the foods for which they were known. This still occurs today. When the Ngāti Rongomaiwahine people hold a hui on one of their marae, they usually provide bowls of kina roe, karengo (edible seaweed), creamed pāua, and mounds of crayfish.

From the sea to the forest

In the traditional Māori economy, tribes would exchange coastal and inland products. Baskets of dried seaweed were carried inland to be traded for forest products such as preserved birds. The people of Rotorua and other inland lakes of the north exchanged large quantities of whitebait and crayfish. Marine crayfish were also fermented or dried and used as an item of trade with inland tribes.

Manaakitanga – hospitality

A female elder of the Hauraki area has noted that only certain people were allowed to prepare fish for visiting tohunga – both a mark of respect and also a demonstration of the host’s manaakitanga.

Veterans of the Māori Battalion in the Second World War have spoken of the welcome arrival of parcels from home containing dried seafood – a variation in their diets, and also a valued connection with the traditions of home.

How to cite this page:

Mere Whaanga, 'Mātaitai – shellfish gathering - Traditional patterns of harvest', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 12 Jun 2006