A limitless supply?
When the first humans arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia, probably about 1250–1300 CE, they found food in abundance around the coast. As well as moa and other land birds, the coastline offered seals, sea lions, shellfish and tītī (muttonbirds), and there were plenty of fish in the sea. Dolphins and pilot whales were harpooned when they ventured close to the shore.
Archaeological evidence indicates that within 100–150 years many coastal and marine food sources had been depleted. Seal rookeries became deserted except on remote rocky coasts, and sea lions disappeared. Coastal fisheries were locally affected. For example, the oldest archaeological sites on D’Urville Island in Cook Strait contain abundant snapper bones, but these are largely absent from later sites. The resulting food shortages led to the development of resource conservation, combining a hard-headed quest for survival with a spiritual attitude towards harvest from the sea.
Tāne and Tangaroa’s children
Māori regarded themselves as people of the land – the children of Tāne, god of the forest. The marine realm belonged to the god Tangaroa, whose offspring were the fish. Tangaroa needed to be appeased through karakia (incantations) because taking fish was seen as an attack on the children of Tangaroa.
Māori and the marine environment
In the first few centuries of Polynesian arrival it was the seal and sea lion populations which suffered most. There were also considerable fish catches in some areas. As canoes mainly fished close to the coast, the impact was on inshore finned fish, and shellfish gathered from shore. Although some species were locally reduced, it is unlikely that fishing affected breeding stocks.
The Māori relationship with the sea had many practical elements, especially rāhui (bans), which restricted the harvest of fish species at certain times, and sometimes included size limits. There were tapu (restrictions) relating to certain practices such as polluting fishing areas with human waste, and rules preventing damage to fishing grounds with nets and lines. Sacks and baskets were never dragged over shellfish beds.
At the time of James Cook’s first visit in 1769, marine life seemed abundant. The reports from his expedition attracted sealers keen to exploit the bounty of the southern seas.