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  • Shellfish numbers have been plentiful for centuries and important kai for Northland Māori, but industrial harvesting and canning had a devastating effect on toheroa numbers.

    I ngā wā o mua ko te Toheroa te tino kai a te hapū kei te tai hau-a-uru o te Ika-a-Māui e noho ana, ā, ka taonga ki a rātou. (The toheroa, was once a staple in the diet of hapū on the west coast of Te Ika-a-Māui and considered a taonga.)

    Dr Ocean Mercier

    The toheroa population collapsed after years of overharvesting.

    For three decades, a ban on harvesting has been in place, and the kai that once nourished hapū all along the coast is no longer making it to the dinner table.

    Te whāinga – the goal

    There was a need to find out how abundant the toheroa were historically and what their population size is at present. The Toheroa Abundance Project was formed.

    Since local tangata whenua held a great deal of understanding about this taonga, kuia and kaumātua were asked to share their understandings – their mātauranga .

    Two local men, Barry Searle and Jim Te Tuhi, have been instrumental in establishing the toheroa project. They have been working to save the toheroa population in Northland over many years and are now working with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to re-establish a growing toheroa population.

    E tino tika ana hoki kia whai kaitiaki te toheroa. (And it’s kaitiaki that the toheroa are in desperate need of.)

    Dr Ocean Mercier

    Finding solutions and a way forward

    The relationships formed with the local people as part of this project have been a crucial part of its success. Many kuia and kaumātua living along the beach were interviewed and asked what they felt was impacting on the toheroa populations. They were also asked if they wanted to help sample toheroa populations along the beach.

    Locals have learned skills from the scientists about how to gather data in a beach survey investigation. This is important for the ongoing work of the project. The beach is being mapped by tangata whenua, looking for signs of the toheroa and counting and measuring the shellfish inside sample areas.

    Kua whakarewa tikanga aromatawai ia, hei taunaki i te mātauranga ki te mana o te pūtaiao. (He’s introduced survey methods that back up mātauranga with hard science.)

    Dr Ocean Mercier

    Toheroa are naturally aggregated into dense beds, so you can go many kilometres and find no toheroa but then find a dense bed with lots of individuals crammed in together. It is important to know where these beds are likely to be so the team can concentrate their sampling efforts around those areas.

    Combining iwi knowledge with the results of the recent surveys, the Toheroa Abundance Project group has highlighted some of the potential issues that are affecting the toheroa’s re-establishment as a sustainable source of kai.

    The goal is that the information gathered from the project is communicated widely and that it influences decisions about how the area is managed. It is also important to educate children in schools about the history and the biology of the toheroa, particularly the factors that affect toheroa and how our human behaviour influences the population growth. While we are still some time away from being able to harvest toheroa again, it’s hoped that the population can be rebuilt and toheroa will once again be a delicacy we can all enjoy.

    Kōrero tuku iho – history, stories of the past

    Gathering knowledge from local kaumātua and kuia was vital to the Toheroa Abundance project. Passing on knowledge and understanding about the world we live in through storytelling is part of Māori culture.

    Jim Te Tuhi remembers kuia and kaumātua talking about toheroa and how the name toheroa came to be. They tell of people that came from Kaitaia who were out pigeon hunting looking for these kūkupa. They wandered out of their area and came towards the south, where they were chased by people from Te Roroa until they came to Ripiro Beach, up towards the bluff. They were getting hungry because they hadn’t eaten all day, and they said, “Oh well, there must be some food here, maybe some mussels around.” They had a look around, but they couldn’t find anything. They were digging in the sand, and there was nothing there. So their chief decided to climb up onto the hill at the bluff and pray to the gods for food to save his people, and then a big gust of wind came along and was blowing behind him. It was saying, “Tohe-roa, Tohe-roa”, so they dug and dug, and of course toheroa means ‘persist longer’. So they kept digging and digging, and sure enough, they came across this big shellfish. They ate it and were nourished and so able to carry on their journey. On leaving the area, the chief said, “We will now call this shellfish toheroa.”

    Sampling techniques – the quadrat and transect

    The sampling techniques used by the toheroa research team are a common way of collecting data in a specific area and are often used together. Some transect lines, like the one in this project, are GPS-mapped locations. There is no guesswork when returning to collect data at different time intervals, whether seasonally or each year.

    For the Toheroa Abundance Project, the sampling involves running a line from high water down to the low water mark, called the transect line. Holes are dug at set intervals along the transect line. If it is over a toheroa bed, digging of the quadrats occurs at 5-metre intervals. At each position along the transect, a 500 x 500 mm square quadrat is placed. This ensures the same unit area of sand from each position is sampled along the transect line.

    In a high-density bed of toheroa, spades may damage the toheroa, so the holes are dug by hand to minimise damage. Holes are dug down to a depth of 300 mm. This will ensure the sample of the beach will contain the toheroa and perhaps tuatua (another species of shellfish found in this area)

    The sample is placed in a trolley with a sieve in the bottom and is rinsed out in the surf, leaving the shellfish behind on the sieve. Each individual quadrat sample identifies, counts, measures and records the shellfish found. The data can be then recorded on a map of the beach, and estimates can be made of the total toheroa population size.

    Marine ecosystems

    Shellfish play an important role in a marine ecosystem. Explore this interactive diagram to learn more about life in the sea.

    In Understanding food webs in Fiordland learn more about the role of shellfish in the marine food web through the Dr Steve Wing’s research on cockles.


    The ocean has always been an important source of food for Māori. Monitoring ocean and kaimoana health is important.

    In Iwi and kaimoana discover how iwi around the Bay of Plenty came together to help the clean-up effort and to monitor the area after the Rena disaster.

    Watch the video Testing for toxins in kaimoana to find out how concerns from iwi over the discovery of tetrodotoxin in grey side-gilled sea slugs led to a collaboration with Cawthron Institute to further test for toxins in kaimoana.

    Nature of science

    Using science to find solutions to current issues often directly results in many new innovative discoveries and technologies. Combining data from transect sampling with knowledge from the past (collected from oral histories) provides information that can be used to manage future toheroa populations.

    Related resources

    Check out these supporting resources.

    Activity idea

    While not about shellfish, this activity, Establishing butterfly transects provides a good example of sampling wildlife using a transect.

    Project Mātauranga

    Watch Series 2/Episode 5: Rejuvenating a Delicacy
    Project Mātauranga is a television series that investigates Māori world views and methodologies within the scientific community and looks at their practical application. Each of the 13 episodes in series 2 shows how western science and Māori knowledge systems are combining to provide solutions to a variety of challenges.

    The Science Learning Hub thanks Scottie Productions for allowing us to host these videos.

      Published 6 June 2016 Referencing Hub articles
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