Story: Mātaitai – shellfish gathering

Page 5. Mussels, oysters, toheroa and other species

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Mussels (kuku or kūtai, Perna canaliculus) grow in clumps on rocks or wharf piles. The daily limit is 50 per person, and as with other shellfish that do not have a stated minimum size, larger ones are usually harvested. Weavers use strong mussel shells to make muka, the stripped fibre of flax, when weaving cloaks.

Cockles and mussels at war

The pipi (cockles) and kuku (mussels) fought long ago at Onetahua. The pipi dug themselves into the sand, and the kuku attacked. However, when the kuku thrust out their tongues, they became clogged with sand and were defeated by the pipi. That is why pipi still hold the sandy beaches, while the kuku were forced to retreat to Rakahore, the offshore rocks.

Freshwater mussels

Freshwater mussels (kākahi or Hyridella menziesi) were sometimes harvested with a wooden dredge or rake attached to a net. They are found in the mud of lakes, rivers and streams. Although sometimes collected for aquariums, they are rarely gathered for food now.


Tio (native rock oysters or Saccostrea cucullata) are found in clumps on the rocks in many sheltered harbours and estuaries. The highly prized Bluff oyster (Tiostrea chilensis lutaria) is dredged for a short season each year from Foveaux Strait.

The less flavoursome Pacific oyster, which is much larger and quicker-growing, was introduced in the 1970s. Like the green-lipped mussel, it is now a major part of the aquaculture industry.


Toheroa (Paphies ventricosa) have become so scarce that they are now a protected species and can only be gathered when the Ministry of Fisheries declares a one-day open season at Oreti Beach in Southland.


Most children enjoy pūpū (cat’s eyes or Turbo smaragdus), which are found on the rocky shore. They have a round greenish-black shell with a small green and white eye which covers the entrance to the shell. The cooked flesh is extracted with a pin.


Whetiko (mud snails or Amphibola crenata) are very like pūpū in appearance. They are found in harbours or on estuarine mudflats. Their shells are lighter in colour and softer than the pūpū, and once cooked the top of the spiral can be cut away and the flesh sucked from the shell.


Kaikaikaroro (triangle shells or Spisula aequilatera) prefer similar conditions to tuatua – in the area of breaking surf.

How to cite this page:

Mere Whaanga, 'Mātaitai – shellfish gathering - Mussels, oysters, toheroa and other species', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 12 Jun 2006