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Mātaitai – shellfish gathering

by  Mere Whaanga

Archaeologists have found evidence of the extraordinary variety of seafood enjoyed by Māori in the past. Shellfish such as white slipper shell and volute were gathered, along with the more common pāua, pipi and oysters. Traditional harvesting is still practised at favoured sites around the coast.

Archaeological evidence

A staple food

Shellfish have been an important part of the Māori diet since the first peoples arrived in New Zealand. Harvesting was a seasonal occupation, part of the cycle of food-growing and gathering essential to the community.

The harvest was gathered and prepared for three purposes – immediate need, ceremonial occasions such as hui (meetings) and hākari (feasts), and provisions to store for the winter.

Shellfish in middens

Middens (ancient rubbish sites) give us an insight into the range of shellfish that were available. While tuatua, pipi, pāua, pūpū, mussel, cockles, oysters, scallops and mud snails are familiar species still, archaeologists have found the shells of numerous other species in middens. At Māhia there are shells of limpets, whelks, and karaka or ngāruru (Cookia sulcata).

Other species found include black nerita (Nerita atramentosa), ostrich foot (Struthiolaria papulosa), white slipper shell (Crepidula monoxyla), white rock shell (Dicathais orbita), knobbed whelk (Austrofucus glans), volute (Alchithoe arabica), freshwater mussel (Hyridella menziesi), trough shell (Mactra spp.), triangle shell (Spisula aequilatera), and ringed venus shell (Dosinia anus). It is not known whether all were eaten. Some, such as slipper shell and nerita, may have been attached to pāua or mussel shells.

Seasonal camps

Archaeologists have located extensive middens of the shells left from gathering expeditions on beaches in Northland. At Mahakipawa in Pelorus Sound in the South Island, a large midden of whelk and mud snails was discovered. It is estimated that many tonnes of shellfish were processed there, and that, because there were no fish or bird bones, this was a seasonal camp specifically for gathering shellfish.


Sometimes the harvest was cooked in the umu (earth oven). The tuwhatu method involved piling the shellfish in a heap, then burning dry fern on top, or enclosing it with a circle of fire. In the kōhue method, shellfish were placed in a hue (gourd) among hot stones. The shells opened and the liquid that came out was used as a medicine.


In 1843 a surveyor described Māori on D’Urville Island gathering mussels, which they cooked in an earth oven. They would then remove the flesh from the shells and string it up to dry in the trees. This method of preservation was also used for other shellfish such as pipi, tuatua and toheroa – the dried flesh was much lighter and easier to carry back to the village, which could be some distance from the shellfish beds.

Traditional patterns of harvest


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.

Customary harvest and conservation today

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.

Pāua, kina, pipi, cockles and tuatua

When people say they are going out to gather kaimoana (seafood), they are often only going for pāua and kina.


Pāua (Haliotis iris) are found in crevices, on the undersides of reef shelves, and clinging to rocks in channels through the reef. They feed on seaweed, and the colours of the shells vary according to the type of seaweed that is most abundant in the area.

The shells were used for the eyes in carvings, and the thick lip of the shell was fashioned into kahawai, a fishing lure. They are also used extensively for jewellery.

Some people use the hua (stomach or roe) in pāua fritters, or by itself, but most pāua are taken only for the flesh. Very fresh pāua can be fried immediately, but if they are to be eaten later, they are generally beaten with a steak tenderiser to soften the flesh. A favourite recipe is to combine the minced flesh with a little onion and cream. Whichever recipe is favoured, pāua need very little cooking.

Muddy waters

In Wairarapa, pāua were often put in fresh water for a few days before being eaten. These places were known as wai pāua (pāua water). A man named Te Harara had his harvest stolen from his wai pāua by a local woman. However, she made a large number of footprints around the area, to give the impression that a group of travellers had passed by and taken the shellfish. Her deception worked and she was not, at the time, identified as the thief.

To comply with fishing regulations, only pāua that measure more than 125 millimetres may be taken, with a limit of 10 per person per day. The use of diving tanks is prohibited when gathering – under the amateur fishing regulations only free divers may collect them.


Kina (sea urchins or Evechinus chloroticus) are found under rocks and rock shelves on the shore below the high-tide mark. They often have small stones, shells, and seaweed such as neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii) on their spikes as camouflage against snapper and other predators. The daily limit of kina is 50 per person per day.


The shellfish that are most associated with summer holidays are pipi (Paphies australis). They are found in the sandy banks near the mouth of estuaries, and harbours where there is considerable water flow.

The daily limit is 150 per person, and although a minimum size is not stipulated in the regulations, only larger pipi should be taken. In earlier times people had specific flax baskets for pipi. Smaller specimens would fall between the woven strips and back into the beds as the basket was gently swirled through the water.


Tuangi (cockles, or Austrovenus stutchburyi) are found near pipi beds, although most are in the mudflats of estuaries rather than the sandier beds in the flowing water preferred by pipi.


Tuatua (Paphies subtriangulata) are larger than pipi and found on sandy beaches. They are usually harvested when there is a very low tide. People feel for the shellfish with their feet, only grasping them with their hands when they have located a group. The daily limit is 150 per person, except in the Auckland and Coromandel fishing area, where it is 50.

Mussels, oysters, toheroa and other species


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.

Kōura and karengo


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.

Green crayfish

Also found in New Zealand is the packhorse crayfish or green crayfish (Sagmariasus verreauxi), which is larger than the red species.

Freshwater crayfish

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.

How to cite this page: Mere Whaanga, 'Mātaitai – shellfish gathering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 12 June 2006