Kōura (red crayfish or red rock lobsters), New Zealand’s most common crayfish, were abundant in the Māhia area before the commercialisation of this species. Elders speak of the time when they would gather crayfish for dinner on their way home from school.
The crayfish were easily caught in quite shallow water, and children had no need to dive for them. They would take one for each family member, the size determined by the size of the recipient – a small crayfish would be taken for a young child, and larger ones for the adults.
Crayfish are now much scarcer, and people dive for them, or set pots in the hope of catching some. Recreational fishermen can take six per day, either 54 or 60 millimetres across the tail (for male or female respectively).
When the crayfish has a soft shell, or the female is carrying eggs, it must be returned to the sea.
Also found in New Zealand is the packhorse crayfish or green crayfish (Sagmariasus verreauxi), which is larger than the red species.
The freshwater crayfish (known as kōura or kēwai) lives in streams, lakes and ponds throughout the country. The smaller species (Paranephrops planifrons) is found in the North Island and in the north-west of the South Island. The larger variety (Paranephrops zealandicus) occurs in the south-east of the South Island and on Stewart Island.
They are dull green in colour and only about 125 millimetres long. Traditionally, they were caught by placing a leafy mānuka branch in the water until the kōura crawled in among the leaves and twigs. Then the branch was carefully removed and the catch shaken out on the bank.
Up to 50 can be collected per person per day under the mixed-species bag limit, but this is reduced if other species subject to the same limit are collected that day. However, in Lake Taupō, taking kōura is prohibited.
The seaweed karengo is another important traditional reef food, harvested in the autumn and winter. It grows on the edge of the reef from the time of the autumn rains. On the eastern coast of the Māhia Peninsula, alongside a small stream that flows out to the beach, is a rock where a quantity of the very first harvest of karengo was left by the kaitiaki whānau (guardian family) of that area. This was part of the ritual that ensured subsequent harvests.
Karengo was preserved by drying, and a good harvest would ensure supplies for the year.
Crabs were also taken from the reef, along with starfish and octopus.