Tairua residents blocked access to their main wharf and turned out in numbers today after footage of alleged "wholesale slaughter" of an elusive and unprotected fish species was caught on camera.
Pink Maomao, also called Longfin Perch, is a species of sea bass not included in any recreational catch limits.
Recreational fishing lobby Legasea was holding urgent talks with Ministry for Primary Industries staff, seeking legislation to protect these and other reef species of high value to Asian markets.
Ngati Hei Kaumatua Joe Davis said it appeared to be a "shocking" abuse of a legislative loophole.
"Stop the abuse of Tangaroa's mokopuna. Most of the species out there are heading towards extinction," he said.
A group of fishermen arrived at the wharf below Mt Paku this morning and did not launch their boat.
They were told the vehicle and trailer would not be in the same condition when they returned, witnesses say.
"The fishermen were confronted and told if their car was there in 20 minutes it would be torched," said Mike Bhana, who watched the group put the boat on the trailer and leave soon after.
He said he did not believe they were from the same group he filmed the previous day.
"People are really angry and the worry is somebody does something stupid and a local ends up in trouble and these guys carry on what they're doing."
On Thursday afternoon, Bhana, a documentary maker, filmed a group of fishermen returning from nearby coastal fisheries with what he says was 1500-2000 pink maomao fish.
The vehicles included 4WD utes and alloy boats about 5m to 7m in size, carrying between five and six fishermen plus a skipper on each.
Before dawn today, dozens of locals were at the main wharf and one person blocked access by parking his vehicle and trailer across it.
There were reports that some of the vehicles known to have been used by the group of fishermen seen yesterday had been damaged.
Emails have also flooded in from fishermen and coast users, some who have also witnessed large amounts of fish taken at the Aldermen Islands - which was just announced will be included in a Hauraki Gulf Spatial Plan Marine Protected Area - and Cuvier Island off the coast of Kuaotunu.
Up the coast in Kuaotunu, fisherman Neil Chapell said he witnessed two boats out the back of Cuvier Island on Thursday hauling in large volumes of what he initially thought were small snapper.
Chapell moved to within 30m to get a closer look.
He said the two boats had multiple people and fish bins onboard each and were using electric reels with small hooks like those used for baitfish.
"One had eight people on board, another had five all going flat out bringing them up endlessly.
"I thought 'that can't be snapper, nobody in their right minds would bring up that many'.
"I have seen them here at the Kuaotunu boat ramp before over the past 6-8 weeks and thought that's unusual. I said something like 'how many fish are you guys planning on catching' and they've pretended they don't speak English."
Andrew McNabb is among Tairua locals who witnessed the group launching from the town's two wharves over the past six to eight months.
He worked for NIWA in summer surveying catches brought in to Pauanui and said some fishermen were bringing in species including banded perch, golden snapper, redfish, pigfish and big granddaddy groper that are not usually targeted by fishers.
Tairua fisherman Scott Lee who was at the wharf yesterday when the men returned with bins full of fish said information was being shared about registration plates with other settlements including Whangamata and Kuaotunu.
The skipper of Tairua-based fishing charter Strikezone, Jason Harris, said it was possible the group had done a charter with him in the past.
Paying customers could GPS-record the location that skippers brought them to and then return to the spot in their own boats.
"It annoys me. I had a guy that lives in Pauanui we were fishing for kingfish and he was blatantly marking the areas on his phone. I confronted him and said if he continued to do it I would take him back and charging the full fee."
He said most clients were willing to "limit" their take if they struck a good catch of pink maomao.
"If they've caught 50 or 60 between four or five guys we move on. I have had them say we want to stay and keep catching them but I don't allow them to take too many.
"Unfortunately you get a few rogues that seem to be coming back in their own boats."
Ministry for Primary Industries director of compliance services, Gary Orr, said MPI had seen the video footage of pink maomao being caught at Tairua harbour.
Fishery officers were conducting patrols today.
"Over the past week, we've fielded a number of calls from people in the community concerned about the amount of Pink maomao being fished in this area.
"If MPI finds evidence that any of this fish is being sold, we would take appropriate compliance action. We encourage anyone who has been approached to buy Pink maomao or any recreationally caught fish to contact our 0800 4 POACHER hot line.
Orr said the Ministry did receive suggestions from communities about potential changes to fishing rules.
"We are looking into this in relation to the issues raised recently and considering if the current settings remain appropriate or if more controls are needed."
A change.org petition by Mike Bhana had received 1500 signatures and sought urgent Government legislation to protect the elusive reef fish and others being targeted.
Whangamata Police could not be reached for comment.