Time for a rāhui?


    There was a pod of orca in the distance as Gloaming and I were reaching home from Motuihe with eased sheets and slightly too much wind earlier in this summer. But, even as I reached for my phone to alert nearby friends to watch for the tall dorsal fin and gleaming bodies of a sizeable pod of orca ahead of me, I realised that a pair of the giant oceanic mammals were curving in a private underwater dance in the bottle-glass green wave right alongside the cockpit.

    An involuntary shout of delight was answered by a gruff barking exhalation from one of them that might have been a pleasant return greeting to a sailor not churning the gulf with a propeller.

    Alas, I actually think the creature was probably grumpy. All of that summer Sunday, the waters had been harrowed and roiled continuously by everything from donut-towing Bay Liners to gin palaces, all of them noisy, while sun-darkened fishermen rose in a frieze of rods from every tinny.

    When Maori wished to preserve . . . any natural product they would proceed to rahui or ritually prohibit it.

    Requiring up to ten percent of their 6000 to 12,000lbs of bodyweight in food daily, orcas are apex predators at the top of what can only be described as a collapsing foodchain.

    Further tinkering by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) with commercial lobster fisheries further south this week drew attention to what has been described as the disgraceful collapse of the species in Auckland due to flawed science.

    In September, Dr Nick Shears, a University of Auckland marine biologist at the Leigh Marine Laboratory, reported that crayfish numbers inside the Leigh and Goat Island reserves are down a further 25 per cent from 2014, lower than when it was established in 1975 and less than a quarter of their peak in the 1990s.

    Numbers outside the reserves are now less than five per cent of the natural, unfished level, he said, attributing the decline in the reserves to sustained fishing pressure on their boundaries as well as the state of the broader ‘CRA2’ fisheries management area which covers the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty.

    Hauraki Gulf Forum Chairman John Tregidga said he expected the Sea Change Tai Timu Tai Pari marine spatial plan, due at the end of the year, to address marine reserves and fisheries management issues in an integrated way.

    It didn’t. Meanwhile, and for decades, even ardent fishermen have been horrified that nothing has been done to protect the snapper heading up harbour for the spawning during the early summer months. At very least.

    It’s years since I have been able to bring myself to buy shop-bought snapper.  The by-catch, the wasteful effects of quotas, the undersized snapper in a Sydney fish market make the ethical price too high.

    Our vast upper harbour and the inner gulf’s skin-deep beauty has enabled tinkering with snapper sizes and “long term plans” to divert attention from the dire state of the gulf. As has the MPI’s own fixation on the rights of quota holder investment and the economic returns from the industry.

    Even without the contagion of alternative facts, there is nothing so obtuse and usefully polarising as a good conflict-of-interest tangle.

    One of the world’s most spectacular fisheries collapses occurred in the 1950s when hundreds of boats severely overfished a Pacific sardine population already in decline from a natural down-cycle. The crash closed down California’s Cannery Row and sardine populations did not recover for nearly 40 years. A similar decimation of Grand Banks cod left tens of thousands out of work and also looked as if it would be forever.

    We could all stop consuming fish, voluntarily limit our catches and demand the commercial fleets are properly regulated and it might make some difference.

    Better to put legs under the already well developed dissatisfaction with fisheries management across all the competing interests for what is a part of our national ‘commons’ – commercial, customary and recreational. With a little push, this could become a hot potato of the 2017 election.

    This is too important to leave to the lotteries that are national elections in this post-truth age. (Of course, lots of things are, but this one has an obvious out).

    Rāhui are written into our cultural tradition. When Maori wished to preserve the birds of forest or waters, fish or any natural product they would proceed to rahui or ritually prohibit it.

    The Gulf is about due for such a fully intentional declaration that should rightfully come from tangata whenua.

    It would be a meaningful call to action. We sucked down just such a blanket ban for Ninety Mile Beach’s toheroa. The dolphins would thank us. As will our children.

    •  Liz Waters

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