Story: Mātaitai – shellfish gathering

Page 3. Customary harvest and conservation today

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When people are searching for shellfish, any rocks that are lifted or turned over should be replaced as they were. Only enough food should be taken for the family, unless there is a hui (gathering), for which a permit can be obtained from elders of the local marae. In some areas, permits for traditional harvest are now only issued for marae-based hui.

Karakia and tapu

Those who hold to traditional ways still say karakia (incantations) before entering the water to begin a harvest.

Women who are menstruating should not go into the water to gather food. This is because of the woman’s tapu status (under religious restriction), and there is conflict between tapu, food gathering and immersion in water. Because sharks are attracted by blood, going into the sea while menstruating may also increase the danger of an attack.

Harvesting kina

Some people still watch for seasonal signs before going out to harvest seafood. For instance, in the Māhia area, the kina is said to be fat when the mānuka is flowering. In other areas the flowering of the kōwhai or pōhutukawa indicate that the time is right. Earlier generations ate everything within the kina shell, but now most of the contents are discarded and only the yellow roe is eaten.

Rāhui – bans

Rāhui are periods when shellfish must not be taken. They are imposed to allow the seafood to regenerate, or if there has been a drowning in the area. In earlier times the area under rāhui was marked with a wooden post, a stick with seaweed on it, or a piece of the missing person’s clothing. Most people will respect rāhui if they know it has been imposed.

Decline in stocks

Commercial harvesting has had a heavy impact on sources of pāua and kina, and on crayfish stocks. In the 1970s, on reefs around the Māhia Peninsula, a family meal could be taken from the reef without the need for the diving equipment that is now the norm.


Māori developed their knowledge of the sea, the correct times and ways to harvest seafood, and their conservation practices, over generations of usage and observation.

At all times the shellfish-gathering areas need to be cared for. Any contaminants such as sewage are soon absorbed by shellfish, making them unfit for human consumption. Disturbing the beds with mechanical diggers or driving over them also damages this prized food source.

As with any resource, the sites should be managed to ensure the harvest will be available the following year, and that future generations may enjoy going to the beach and gathering the foods their ancestors harvested.

How to cite this page:

Mere Whaanga, 'Mātaitai – shellfish gathering - Customary harvest and conservation today', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 12 Jun 2006