Native Affairs Summer Series - Toheroa for Mokopuna

By Heeni Brown

Although toheroa were nearly wiped out in some parts of Aotearoa, they're starting to thrive through conservation work. Locals from Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē / 90 Mile Beach are about to start their plans to save the shellfish delicacy. But, it may not be popular.

Last year Native Affairs spoke with Māori in the Far North concerned about the plight of toheroa at Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē.

Patau Tepania travels on Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē every day. He's a commercial fisherman but also describes himself as a kaitiaki of the beach.

He says,  "Each hapū and whānau that live in the small communities, along the shorelines, along the beach, along Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē, have always been kaitiaki in their own areas and rightfully so. It's something that's a given that you look after your doorstep.”

Even with someone who knows every part of this beach, it’s a struggle to find even a single toheroa.

Last century, the toheroa beds were decimated. To help the toheroa, commercial harvesting was banned in 1969 and the recreational take was stopped in 1971. But the toheroa haven't returned.

The Ministry of Primary Industries last survey of toheroa was in 2010. At the time, toheroa densities were so low they only encountered 38 individual toheroa.

The beach has been used as a highway for generations and is being blamed for not enabling the toheroa to regenerate.

Patau says, "There's a lot of other things that come into play when it comes to bringing back those toheroa. First, they've got to stop those buses or traffic or designate an area of part of the beach where they cannot drive over the toheroa beds. There's those things that [they] have to consider."

But the toheroa has a new champion. The newly established Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē Board.

Since 2015, four Far North iwi - Ngāti Kuri, Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto and Te Rārawa - with the Local and Regional Councils are responsible for Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē.

Chair Haami Piripi says his priority is to restore the toheroa so his daughter Raiha and mokopuna can eat the shellfish as he once did.

Part of their plan could include stopping vehicles from driving on certain sections of the beach just so the toheroa can thrive.

"We know for certain that crustacean life like toheroa is affected by vehicular traffic over the top of them, especially when they're at spat stage," he says. "A spat is only that far below the sand and so it just takes a heavy vehicle, or just takes a vehicle doing wheelies or something, that will damage that spat.”

Haami says, "I see a lot of people doing wheelies and that along the beach with bikes and cars and those are the things that really damage the spat because they just dig it all out and kill it by the thousands. So that's the sort of thing that we need to get a grip on. But then again spat is only on a certain part of the beach, not the whole part of the beach so there's areas that can be driven on and areas that ought not to be."

Haami knows he's got a hard job convincing the locals and transport companies they need to take responsibility too for the toheroa and ultimately the state of the beach. But he believes people of the Far North will take efforts to save the toheroa seriously.

“We've had our own rāhui on toheroa here for over a decade now so we don't permit the taking of toheroa on the beach because it's been so badly damaged. So yeah I think so, I think people do take it seriously. But we haven't eaten toheroa here for so long that people have probably forgotten what it looks like.  But people do take it seriously and should take it seriously. it's a really important treasure in terms of a unique crustacean form."