Mussel spat: Ninety Mile iwi says no to mechanical harvesting to baby mussels, MPI seeks compromise

Changes are afoot for the way baby mussels (spat) are collected from Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (Ninety Mile Beach).

It follows a viral video taken last week, showing heavy machinery ploughing through the surf at Northland's most famous beach.

Ahipara resident Rawhiti Waiti shot the video, and told Newshub Nation his aim was to raise awareness in the community.

"I'm not out here trying to call anyone out, I'm not trying to lose jobs or anything," he says. 

"It's for the whanau, it's for all of us in the Far North. This is our beach and for a lot of people it's actually a lifeline."

August to November is the peak period for spat collection. The baby mussels attach to seaweed and are washed ashore by spring storms and prevailing currents.

Sixty-five percent of New Zealand's spat comes from Ninety Mile Beach, where large adult mussel beds are located off the coast. Once harvested, the spat is replanted at mussel farms around the country, an industry worth $350 million a year. 

The Ministry for Primary Industries says harvesting with heavy machinery has been happening for at least a decade, and there's nothing in the video that breaches the rules.

"They've got a form of harvesting that's a modified tractor, on the front of it is a scoop and they run that through the top layer of the surf zone and pick up the floating seaweed," says Mat Bartholomew, Fisheries NZ director of aquaculture.

"If it wasn't harvested it would die so there's not any real sustainability concern there."

But Waiti, and many others, are concerned about the impact on tuatua and toheroa beds.

"Right now it's getting even harder and harder to pick tuatua and right now's the time to make a difference and save what we can," he says.

In 2007, NIWA research, commissioned by Kaitaia Spat, found that the impact of mechanical harvesting on tuatua and toheroa was likely to be minimal. 

However, tuatua and juvenile toheroa live more shallow in the sand and more recent research by Otago University has found they can be crushed by vehicles. 

"They are taonga, they are treasures, you know they feed our families and have done for centuries and this kind of commercial harvesting isn't suited to that and I don't think it ever will be," says Patau Te Pania, chair of Takutaimoana - a group that cares for marine life in the area.

Te Pania is also a commercial fisherman, and told Newshub Nation his problem isn't with the spat pickers - some of whom are locals - but with the rules.

"At the end of the day, these guys are trying to do an honest day's work."

However, he wants the permits to specify that spat can only be collected when it has naturally washed ashore.

"It's quite clear they're not getting it off the beach - they're getting it in the sea, they're getting it in the surf, and that's the problem. The machinery being used is not good for our beach, it's not good for our people."

Spat collection is regulated by the Quota Management System, and the four local iwi are collectively allocated 20 percent of the quota.

Haami Piripi, chair of Te Rarawa, says a return to hand-harvesting would be more in line with cultural tikanga.

"Our iwi and and all the iwi associated with the beach have an aversion to this form of mechanical harvesting."

MPI and the industry body Aquaculture NZ say they're prepared to listen, with a hui between all stakeholders is being held on August 28. 

"What we're interested in now and working with the [Te Oneroa a Tōhē] working group on, is really digging down into the concerns around these activities and trying to work out a pathway forward that might lead to some changes in how it operates," says Bartholomew.

Aquaculture NZ told Newshub Nation that "all spat collectors will be electronically monitored by the end of the year".

"We recognise the importance of Te Oneroa a Tōhē iwi as kaitiaki [guardians] of the beach and we respect their values, as well as those of the wider community."

Waiti says he's not convinced electronic monitoring will do the trick. 

"It's all fine and dandy having electronic ways of monitoring it but MPI and Fisheries need people on the ground policing this stuff."

Some iwi members are calling for a rāhui or customary ban to be put in place. 

Te Rarawa has previously brought in a rāhui on nearby coastline to help pāua recover from overfishing.

"That tells us that the methodology of using a rahui is appropriate and useful but it's also a thing we have to use sparingly," says Piripi. 

"I think it will be quite difficult to apply [a rāhui] in this situation because people have legal quota."

Piripi is leading the work to create a beach management plan for Ninety Mile, which will shape how the beach can be used going forward. 

For locals like Waiti, they just want to see some action being taken to protect their taonga. 

"You know even 50 to 60 years ago it was a good beach, we just want to see it improve again and I can say that on behalf of everyone up here," he says. 

Newshub Nation.