Story: Mātaitai – shellfish gathering

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.

Story by Mere Whaanga
Main image: Collecting shellfish, Bay of Islands

Story summary

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Pāua, kina, crayfish, pipi, oysters and mussels have always been important food for Māori, along with other kaimoana (food from the sea). Today they still collect these shellfish, sharing them at traditional feasts, or just cooking them in fritters for the family.

Shellfish in middens

A midden is an ancient rubbish site that archaeologists study to discover how people used to live. Some Māori middens have shells discarded from many different shellfish, including unusual ones such as ringed venus shell. This shows that there was once a much bigger variety of shellfish to eat.

Traditional harvesting

In coastal tribes, each family group owned places where they knew the shellfish were. Before going into the sea they would chant a karakia. If relatives visited to take shellfish, they would ask permission, and bring gifts.


Gathering seafood was a serious matter, with strict rules:

  • Children were not to yell or scream.
  • No shellfish was opened while people were in the water.
  • Only one kind, such as pāua, was taken at one time.
  • To protect the supply, shellfish-gathering was sometimes banned. A wooden post marked an off-limits area.

Cooking and preserving

Shellfish were often placed in an earth oven, sometimes inside a gourd among hot stones. Another method was to pile up the shellfish, then burn dry ferns on top. When hot, the shells opened up.

To store some food for winter, the cooked flesh was hung on a line among the trees to dry.

Sharing seafood

The harvest was often shared on feast days or other special occasions. Tribes would fill baskets with pipi, oysters, and other local treats. People from forest regions would trade goods for shellfish.

Types of shellfish

Today many different species are still eaten. They are no longer so plentiful, and there are limits on how many you can take.

  • Pāua live around rocks and reefs, and are usually cooked in fritters.
  • Pūpū (cat’s eye) are tiny shellfish on the rocky shore. You pull out the flesh with a pin.
  • Kōura (crayfish) are caught by divers, and valued for their delicate flavour.
How to cite this page:

Mere Whaanga, 'Mātaitai – shellfish gathering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 12 June 2006