Walking along the golden sands of a remote Coromandel coast, bits of scallop shell mosaic the shores.
Most are small, broken or brittle from months out at sea but, for Ōpito Bay local Brett Hyde, one stands out among the rest – pink, shiny, its fan-shaped shell the size of his palm.
“That’s a fresh scallop shell,” he says, examining it thoroughly before throwing it back into the water.
“It’s a sign that maybe the rāhui is doing something out there.”
Ōpito Bay, 25km from Whitianga, was once renowned for its abundant scallop beds.
Each season, recreational and commercial fishermen would drive miles to fill their quota and bellies with the kaimoana.
After a storm, “bucket loads” of untouched tupa or scallops would wash ashore to be feasted on by seagulls, petrel and the whole community, locals recall.
Now they’re lucky to find even one.
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“Māori have long known the mamae [pain] of Tangaroa,” Ngāti Hei kaumātua Joe Davis tells Stuff.
“But it’s taken a long time to get to where we are today.”
Describing the state of our oceans as the most politically charged topic of the day, Davis says when he suggested a rāhui on scallops in Ōpito Bay he could never have predicted it would receive such support.
The voluntary rāhui was put in place in December and was intended to continue only over the busy summer period.
That rāhui is still ongoing – with many locals “dobbing in boaties” when they spot them out off the coast.
Other communities have also joined in, rallying for an official rāhui through MPI on the whole eastern Coromandel.
“For the last 30 to 40 years, the eastern Coromandel coast has been decimated by dredging and overfishing,” Davis says.
Every season around 30 scallop boats would venture out near the Mercury Bay Islands to collect 50 tonnes of scallops each, he says.
When that season ended, they would then be replaced by out-of-towners in fancy boats equipped with the latest technology.
“In the early days of scallop harvesting, commercial fishermen would do a shot and it was hit-and-miss if they would find anything, but today you can triangulate satellites, take underwater shots and virtually tell others the best areas to look.
“Scallops don’t have a chance.”
Ngāti Hei knew it had a kete of tools such as taiāpure – an area customarily of significance to iwi or hapū where tangata whenua can make recommendations on fishing rules – mātaitai (the establishment of a reserve) and rāhui under the Fisheries Act, Davis says.
But none would have worked quite so well without community pressure, he says.
“Sustainability isn’t a word any more. It’s about abundance and I know it’s a big ask, but we need to try and get those numbers back up beyond sustainability and get their lifecycles back up again.
“I’m really blown away by the support and I believe it’s going to start a chain reaction of rāhui.”
From abundance to paucity
For local Wally Leighton, this upswell in community support isn’t too far off what he’d expect for a community centred around scallops.
Leighton, who first came to Ōpito Bay in 1964 as a contractor on a nearby farm, says most locals have a connection with Ōpito that goes back 30-45 years. Their interests lie in fishing and the sea, and most are “sympathetic to the environment”.
When Leighton moved to Ōpito permanently 20 years ago, he used to dive out near Mercury Island where he’d easily find his catch along the seabed.
At times, he didn’t even need to bother putting his head underwater, as “trailer loads of scallops” would wash up to shore after every “big blow”.
In the early days, Leighton and the community used to watch “sneaky” commercial scallop boats encroach the line between the commercial and recreational areas just to get their hands on more scallops.
Their dredges left lines ploughed in the sand.
Always on the lookout for large clusters, they pillaged a scallop super bed out near Great Barrier Island in 2011.
The golden find saw the scallop fishermen’s commercial catch reach 227 per cent of the national haul in 2011/2012, 332 per cent in 2012/2013 and then plummet to 51 per cent in 2013/2014.
“It was said that bed would keep people in scallops for a lifetime, but it was dead in about two or three years,” says Leighton.
Some people say that bed fed into Ōpito Bay’s scallop population, he says.
Recreational fishermen are also to blame.
“We know for a fact that on the first day of the season last year in September [before the voluntary rāhui], at least 30 boats were sitting out there.
“Most of them came out from holiday baches in Whitianga, Coromandel, Cooks Beach and Kūaotunu and, if you’re coming all that way, you probably wouldn’t just take 20 scallops.
“You’d probably have your three divers on board, which entitles you then to 100 scallops, so 20 for the captain, 20 for the safety officer and 20 for each diver and that’s 100 scallops. And with 30 boats on the bay an hour, that sees over 3000 scallops gone an hour.
“Just like that.”
Scallop harvesting is a livelihood for some fishermen.
“What right do we have to take it off of them? But also what right do we have to deny generations of kids from experiencing that.”
A massive flood two years ago could have also contributed to the devastation in scallop populations, says Brent Hyde.
Hyde has many memories of holidays in Ōpito as a boy with his family, diving for scallops.
He recalls that when he explored the seabed, it was a living thing.
“It had seahorses, horse mussels, weed, and the scallops were big. I’m not exaggerating – we used to get three that were the size of my hand and that would do the whole family for a feed,” Hyde remembers.
Now it’s just sand.
In 2019 a massive storm and torrential rain – the worst Hyde has seen – flooded the creek, blocking all access in and out of Kūaotunu and Ōpito.
For two days residents were trapped and “gunk” inundated the bay.
“The bay went completely black. I kid you not.
“The creek was just cleaned out and, boy, it was incredibly horrific.”
That, combined with a “hammering” by fishermen, meant scallops didn’t stand a chance, says Hyde.
“Beginning of that season there was nothing. All the scallops had gone.
“The commercial guys came in, and they pulled up their dredges several times and found nothing. Few hits and they were gone.
“By the end of that season, everyone was putting up their hands saying something was wrong.”
He considers this a wake-up call, not only for Ōpito Bay but for New Zealand.
“This is the only place reckies [recreational fishermen] get their scallops.
“Commercial and recreational fishers should be working together, not against each other, and managing a resource.
“Instead of pointing the finger, we’ve just got to be wiser.
“Until there’s enough scallops there to sustain themselves, we are not entitled to take any more.”
Community collective to national noise
The movement has had a ripple effect up and down the coast.
The Whitianga Ocean Festival – once called the Whitianga Scallop Festival – made the decision to take scallops off its menu, despite being renowned for its scallop dishes for the past 16 years.
This then led to a hui in Whitianga aimed at broadening the subject to other kaimoana under threat in the Hauraki Gulf, 12 nautical miles of ocean between Auckland and Coromandel.
Now conversations are being had in many rohe.
“It’s been a unifying experience,” says Legasea spokesman Sam Woolford, reflecting on the past nine months.
The lobby group, which was established by the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council in 2012, has been the middle man of the movement, providing resources and building connections between locals and authority.
While from an outsider’s standpoint this call for change has escalated quickly, Woolford says the rallying has actually been going on for years.
The first sign of collective doubt in the current system was made clear three years ago when Ngāti Hei joined the debate alongside Legasea as part of the Sea Change movement, he says.
In 2016, the report – a collective effort from a diverse group of gulf users, including commercial and recreational fishermen, Māori and conservationists – made ambitious recommendations to address these issues.
That plan, however, was ignored by the fisheries minister at the time, Stuart Nash.
It wasn’t until 2020 that the conversation surfaced again when the Sport Fishing Council made a call to ban scallop dredging, resulting in many boating stores moving away from selling dredging equipment.
“That was the hallelujah moment for many people along the coast,” says Woolford.
After that announcement, Woolford received multiple calls every day from people concerned for the state of scallop populations.
Ōpito Bay and Kūaotunu residents and regular holiday goers in particular were the most vocal of them all.
“The calls were coming thick and fast, and they were all asking for help.
“There was an overwhelming concern from the community that, if something isn’t done now, future generations won’t be able to experience this taonga any more.”
This birthed the Scallop Restoration Project – a collective involving Ngāti Hei, ratepayer associations, fishing clubs and community groups – which co-wrote a letter to Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker, calling for the Government to take action on the depleted scallop beds.
After a lack of response from Government, the frustrated group took matters into its own hands, putting a voluntary rāhui on the shellfish.
The Ōpito Bay Ratepayers Association raised more than $25,000 in support and a snapshot survey was commissioned by the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council.
“Joe’s such a hero,” Woolford said.
“He listened to the community, and he took a risk. And that risk has had a ripple effect across the coast.
“That’s the start of a revolution.”
Now it’s time to turn that energy national, he said.
“It’s not a recreational rāhui, it’s not a Māori rāhui, it’s not a commercial rāhui.
“Everyone just needs to take a break and, when it rebuilds, we need to look at better management, because I can guarantee the community won’t allow dredging back in there again.”
Where to now?
Since the call for change the Government has announced trawl fishing will be restricted and marine protection areas will be expanded almost threefold under its new plan to protect Hauraki Gulf.
The strategy, Revitalising the Gulf – Government action on the Sea Change Plan, includes changes such as the creation of 18 new marine protection areas, more environmental monitoring, an expanded programme to manage protected species, and a plan to work with mana whenua and local communities on coastal management.
The Government has also promised to freeze the footprint of commercial scallop dredging to existing areas and exclude recreational scallop dredging, however, the quota management remains the same.
New Zealand Fisheries has received a total of 2376 submissions since it sought public feedback from March until May on the two-year rāhui application, but it has not yet made a decision.
Davis said the wait is creating tension in the community, especially with commercial scallop season starting.
“We’ve asked everyone to respect this rāhui, but these commercial guys are still allowed to dredge and still have 50 tonnes of quota each.”
Of that, only 26 per cent is actually being caught.
“[David Parker] is crazy if he doesn’t do anything.
“There are so many extinctions that happen and this is going to be one of them if we don’t do something now.”
If a decision isn’t made soon, the community could become volatile, Woolford said.
“We will definitely see some friction in the community. That will be undeniable. We saw it when the commercial industry dredged there last season – people were up in arms about it, they were outraged.
“We saw it again when Niwa came in to do their survey results people were really upset … so we’ve got a bit of a precedent here.
“The ecosystem can do amazing things if you take the pressure off. It’s very clear that the community is prepared to sacrifice [their own enjoyment of] scallops … but that is going to be completely undone if the commercial industry goes in with their dredges.”