The holiday season in Northland traditionally involves family beach days often with a spot of kaimoana gathering on the side ... if you're in the know of where to find it, that is. Jodi Bryant takes a look into the foreshore shellfish scene in Northland.
The days of yesteryear when we could pop down to the beach, do the "pipi shuffle" – or was that the "toheroa twist" – and return home laden with a bucketful of shellfish are becoming a mere distant memory with many now asking: "Where's all the pipis and tuatua at?"
"What is going on with the disappearance of tuatua?" asked one Northlander on social media. "All my life, they were plentiful – Cooper's Beach, Tokerau and the 90. Now, f-all."
"Tuatuas have been scarce for years. I would love to know where to get them but people would be mad to disclose areas over the summer," answered someone.
"In the late 1950s, we used to go rabbiting in the ti-tree of Marsden Point and gathering mussels, cockles and tuatua (and the occasional octopus) from Mair Bank at low tide," recalled a local.
"I don't like going to get shellfish now. Years ago, was simple and plentiful, now you gotta bloody dive for it in some places I grew up at ... so Countdown for me now."
Another commenter said they're still around but the beds frequented as kids had moved to deeper water – "Instead of being waist-deep and using our feet like we used to, we had to use snorkels – even at low tide. I wondered if it had anything to do with water temps rising or just over-harvesting."
Others put it down to modification of the environment from development and over-population.
"Look at the numbers compared to early 2000s and travel is so much easier. Our small country can't replenish seafood stocks to cater for the numbers of pickers we get nowadays. Government doesn't seem to care about seafood stocks and tuatua and pipi will eventually be like the toheroa – too late and too little done."
Another responder agreed: "Our local spots have been plundered that many times that those areas need to have a Rāhui put on them so that the kai can replenish themselves and thrive again in size," responded another.
While there are patches of these shellfish still around our district, it's a matter of local knowledge and word of mouth. Understandingly, people aren't wanting to disclose their locations.
"If you get a local that'll give up their spot, all I can say to you is you're darn lucky because that person has to be a kaitiaki of that spot, so treasure that gift and treat it like a taonga," advised one Northlander.
We didn't dare venture into asking residents to disclose the locations – after all, we're locals too. Instead, on the basis you find them, we thought we'd focus on that ever-present question of how to purge them of sand so you don't get that annoying crunch while chewing on your fritter.
Many swear by leaving them in a bucket of ocean water, somewhere cool and out of the sun, overnight when the shellfish will spit the sand out. One person said adding breadcrumbs, which the shellfish will feed on, speeds up the process for those too impatient to wait overnight. Another suggested suspending them in an onion bag so they don't sit in the sand, enabling them to spit better.
One commenter said leaving them in the ocean works best for him because he considers all shellfish disgusting.
Others didn't mind the sand, saying that grew up on gritty fritters.
"Nothing like a bit of ocean fibre – wouldn't taste the same otherwise."
While the once-plentiful, New Zealand-exclusive toheroa were a popular delicacy, they are now so scarce there has been a ban on their harvesting for about 40 years.
However, water's-edge foragers in Northland are allowed up to 150 pipi, cockles and tuatua.
Ministry for Primary Industries fishery compliance regional manager Phil Tasker advises if intending to gather shellfish in Northland, the best thing to do is to download MPI's free NZ Fishing Rules mobile app.
"You'll find the latest information on rules and catch limits, along with which areas are closed to fishing. Closures generally occur to take pressure off a fishery where there is a sustainability concern. When it comes to gathering the shellfish, you should also consider food safety."
Fisheries officers will be out and about in Northland this summer checking that all catches and seafood takes are legal.
There is a ban on taking shellfish from Marsden Bank and Mair Bank, in Whangārei Harbour, until June 28.
The humble shellfish that graces many New Zealand beaches, varying species are found throughout the world. Pipi picking can be conducted on sandy beaches, estuaries, harbour entrances and sandbanks, where they can be found burrowed several centimetres under the sand, tolerant of moderate wave action. Pipi can range from white to a straw colour, they have an oblong shell with rounded ends, and a foot that they use to burrow. In fact, if you swim with your eyes open in the water, they can be seen moving through the water column – hovering or floating.
Pipi are available for harvest year round. Traditionally, Māori ate vast quantities of pipi. Centuries-old midden heaps are filled with shells, and are prominent features on pa sites.
Their flesh is sweet and textured, and especially good for chowders and soups. They are delicious steamed open in white wine, garlic and parsley and tossed through linguine or spaghetti, or marinated in a jar of brown vinegar and onion rings, added to rice dishes or as a feast on their own.
We have two varieties of tuatua, or surf clams, in New Zealand – one in the North Island, the other in the South. They both resemble a pipi but are larger, paler and heavier with a more distinct flat edge on the hinge side of their shell.
They can be found burrowed under the sand at surf beaches and estuaries year round. Throw them on a barbecue hotplate to open, or steam them with wine, herbs and garlic, or fresh ginger, lime juice and coriander. Because they need only a minute or two to open, add them at the last minute to seafood paella or noodle dishes; steam open and mince for baby cocktail fritters; throw into a creamy chowder; or try them fresh and raw with a squeeze of lemon. Tuatua are best cooked as little as possible, they will toughen if overcooked.
Cockles are a heart-shaped distant relative of the clam that enclose small, muscular bodies. These heavily ribbed shells, which help stabilise them in the sand, are greyish to rust-brown.
Cockles live just below the surface of the sand and are found year round in estuaries, harbours, mudflats and intertidal beaches around New Zealand. They are often found near pipi beds.
Cockle meat is succulent and sweet. They make delicious fritters and chowders, and are a tasty addition added to risotto. Add to a seafood soup or stew along with other shellfish and fish. Cockles marry naturally with chilli, saffron, white wine, garlic and fresh herbs.