Disturbing the toheroa seabed by driving on beaches is just as bad as the illegal poaching of the seafood, a Northland iwi leader says.
Rangitane Marsden, chief executive of Te Runanga o NgaiTakoto, has called on people to allow juvenile toheroa to recover at Ninety Mile Beach after years of harvesting and drivers doing wheelies and donuts on the popular tourist destination.
His comments follow an appeal by the Ministry of Primary Industries for people to leave the recovering toheroa alone and warned they could be fined $20,000 if they were caught with more than 50 toheroa.
MPI district compliance manager for Northland, Steve Rudsdale, said the public must ensure they were up to speed with the rules around the collection of toheroa to ensure their survival was not threatened.
He said a ban on collecting these shellfish was in place for a very good reason. People often confused toheroa with tuatua, he said.
"One of the difficulties is that toheroa look very similar to tuatua. Tuatua are much more prolific than toheroa and are not subject to the same gathering ban," says Mr Rudsdale.
"Toheroa shells are more brittle and slightly rounder than tuatua and have a slight lump at the base."
Mr Rudsdale says toheroa have a major cultural significance as well and it would be a great pity to see their recovery fail because of people's greed or the fact that people are unaware of the rules.
"If you are caught with or have disturbed up to 50 toheroa, you face a $500 infringement fine. If you are caught with more than 50 toheroa, you face prosecution and a maximum fine of $20,000."
He said fisheries officers and honorary fisheries officers would be out and about on the beach and would be using discretion but would not tolerate people deliberately or repeatedly taking toheroa.
Mr Marsden supported the MPI's call for responsible management of toheroa on Ninety Mile Beach.
"Public use of vehicles doing wheelies and donuts on the beach is just as concerning as people taking more than their fair share of toheroa. Vehicles rip up beaches and destroy the toheroa because they sit at the high tide mark and not much deeper beneath the sand.
"It's about maintaining adequate toheroa numbers because they've been gone for so long and haven't regenerated," he said.
Mr Marsden said NgaiTakoto would be working with the Far North District Council and other stakeholders to put up signs warning people against taking the shellfish and to avoid driving on the beach.
With an increase in tourists and population in the Far North, he said people may be tempted to flout the rules regarding gathering of toheroa, tuatua and pipi.
Report anyone disturbing or taking toheroa on Ninety Mile Beach to 0800 476 224.