The muttonbird, tītī, or sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus), is a member of the petrel family of seabirds (Procellariidae). The birds have dark brown plumage, with silvery-white markings under the wings. At breeding time in late November they dig burrows in the ground, where they lay a single egg.
Humans have hunted petrels since earliest times. Archaeological data indicates that petrels were widely distributed throughout prehistoric New Zealand, and later regularly harvested by Māori, although to what extent remains uncertain.
The collecting of muttonbird chicks is one of the few remaining large-scale harvests of any petrel species in the world, and is commonly known as muttonbirding. The term refers to the collecting of chicks or fledglings of small to medium-size. Although the exact origin of the English name is unclear, it appears to come from an 18th-century account of the harvest of wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) on Norfolk Island, where the chicks were described as being remarkably fat with meat resembling mutton.
A number of other petrel species have been harvested in New Zealand, although on a much smaller scale. A few grey-faced petrels (Pterodroma macroptera gouldi) are caught by Hauraki Māori from islands in the Aldermen (Ruamāhua) Group off the Coromandel Peninsula.
Rakiura Māori rights to muttonbirding
Rakiura (Stewart Island) Māori, the Māori people of New Zealand’s southernmost region and their descendants, have rights to gather muttonbirds on 36 islands, known as the Tītī Islands, around Stewart Island. They can harvest chicks each year from 1 April to 31 May. Under the Tītī (Muttonbird) Islands Regulations 1978, people can arrive from 15 March to prepare for the season.
Birds in abundance
Muttonbirds are probably the most numerous of all the seabirds in New Zealand, with the largest known colony of about 2 million breeding pairs on the Snares Islands, about 100 kilometres south of Stewart Island. It is estimated there is a global population of 40–60 million, which breed on the mainland of New Zealand, Australia, South America and South Africa, and their offshore islands.
The muttonbirding rights of Rakiura Māori are also guaranteed by the 1864 Deed of Cession of Stewart Island. Under subsequent regulation, 18 of the Tītī Islands are termed Beneficial Islands, to which only certain Rakiura Māori families have joint ownership and right of access. The remaining 18 are known as the Rakiura Tītī Islands, which up until the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998 were also known as the Crown Tītī Islands. Prior to 1998 they were owned and controlled by the Crown, subject to the right of Rakiura Māori to harvest tītī.
Rakiura Māori have used muttonbirds for food, as a trade item, and for their feathers and down. The harvest has huge cultural and economic significance.
Muttonbirds are plentiful, and in recorded history Rakiura Māori have never imposed a catch quota. Harvest-management systems on each of the islands are determined by traditional guidelines (kaitiakitanga) or by the muttonbirders who arrive there before 1 April. There are two main forms of management:
- A closed system, where families have a designated harvesting area
- An open system, where individuals have the right to harvest chicks from anywhere on the island.
Muttonbirding systems have changed over the years, depending on the method most preferred by the Rakiura beneficiaries and the 18 Crown Tītī Islands at the time.
Getting to the Tītī Islands
Access to the islands has traditionally been by boat, and this continues to be the main way of transporting the large quantities of equipment that are required. Helicopters are now often used, making it quicker and safer to unload the boats, and giving people more freedom to come and go.