A Whangārei woman's decision to sell a big bowl full of toheroa for $30 through Facebook has attracted the attention of the Ministry for Primary Industries.
She posted her offer on the Whangārei NZ Massive Buy Sell Group page after taking the prohibited seafood from Baylys Beach along the West Coast of Northland— one of the few locations in New Zealand that toheroa are able to grow.
The toheroa fishery was closed across New Zealand in 1981 and it is deemed illegal to "take or disturb" toheroa. The only exception to the ban on taking toheroa is for people with a customary fishing permit.
An MPI spokesman said it was aware of the post and was making inquiries.
The Northern Advocate attempted to contact the seller for comment but she has not responded.
Taking toheroa carries a maximum fine of $20,000 and offering to sell them attracts a maximum fine of $250,000.
"Any non-compliance is disappointing, especially for the people who are playing their part to follow the rules and protect the resource. Fortunately, the offer to sell toheroa is a relatively rare occurrence," MPI said.
The woman's blatant breach of the Fisheries Act raised the ire of Barry Searle, a staunch toheroa conservationist and kaitiaki at Ripiro Beach for more than 40 years.
With Jim Te Tuhi, his old army mate and neighbour, Searle led a programme transplanting toheroa spat to different locations along the 100km beach, educated many through community initiatives and, in partnership with the University of Auckland, mentored students researching toheroa for their marine science degrees, through to doctorate and masters levels.
In 2012, he was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his 25-plus years researching, protecting and increasing the toheroa population on Ripiro Beach.
"If anyone sees toheroa for sale, they should ring Fisheries (on 0800 476 224). You work hard to build up the stock for the next generation so there's something left for them but there are those that simply don't care and are there to make a quick buck," he said.
"At this time of the year, the toheroa are laying eggs, so it's important people leave them alone. You need 20 million of them the length of Ripiro Beach to sustain them."
Searle said toheroa numbers have been steadily declining in the past three years and that most of the poachers were from outside the area.
"When I was young, you could just go and get your feed at the entrance whenever you wanted but with the advent of cars, the whole beach a poaching zone. If people keep taking them, there would be nothing left for the next generation, and the one after that," Searle said.
In June this year, Aratapu man Gemmell Webster was sentenced to community work for taking 145 toheroa from Ripiro Beach for a "family feed".
He was stopped by an honorary fisheries officer on March 9, 2019, at Glinks Gully. The officer found a bucket with 145 toheroa in it.
Webster explained he had got the shellfish for the family and he also knew they were a prohibited shellfish.
He did not have a customary permit allowing him to take the shellfish and they were returned to the ocean.
He was sentenced to 100 hours' community work and ordered to pay court costs.
Toheroa have a poor reproductive ability and are broadcast spawners, so to breed successfully have to live in clumps.
If large areas of toheroa are cleaned out it would severely impact the ability of the shellfish to reproduce.
What are toheroa?
Paphies ventricosa, or toheroa (a Māori word meaning "long tongue"), is a large bivalve mollusc of the family Mesodesmatidae, endemic to New Zealand.
It is found in both the North Island and the South Island but the main habitat is the west coast of the North Island. The best grounds are wide, fine-sand beaches where there are extensive sand-dunes, enclosing freshwater, which percolates to the sea, there promoting the growth of diatoms and plankton.
The toheroa is a very large shellfish with a solid, white, elongated shell with the apex at the middle. Maximum length is 117mm, height 81mm, and thickness 38mm.