Tikanga and Te Oneroa-o-tohe

Listener 20 May 1991, republished in in J. Gilbert, G. Jones, T. Vitalis, & R. Walker Introduction to Management in New Zealand (1992) p.77.

Keywords: Environment & Resources; Maori;

I was recently involved in a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal by the five Muriwhenua iwi, in the far north, for the return of their rangatiratanga over Te Oneroa-O-Tohe or, as Pakeha call it, Ninety Mile Beach. In the course of preparing my evidence I was struck by the depletion of kaimoana – offshore fish and shellfish – over the period of European involvement. We are so familiar with the destruction of fish, forest, bird and soil in the last 150 years that it is only rarely that we are made to confront the issue as to why it happened.

Consider an account by R C Mat thews, a European who went shark fishing in the 1850s with the Te Rarawa people, one of the five iwi. He reported astonishing returns from the twice-yearly expeditions: “The total number of sharks caught by the fleet …was about 7000, an average of about 65 per canoe for each of the two trips.” The average weight of each fish was about 22.5kg, so the iwi’s total catch was about 160 tonnes.

There has been a similar depletion of shellfish. At the hearing kuia recalled how as children in the 1930s they stood next to piles of shell as tall as themselves.

Now it may be, and the Waitangj Tribunal makes the same point, that these stories have a fishy ring to them, but what is undoubted is the depletion of the fishing stock. If kuia say that they collected tuatua and toheroa up to the high-water mark in the 1950s, I believe them. It is a matter of scientific record that the shellfish ain’t there any more.

What caused that depletion? Turn the question around. How was the fish stock managed at a sustainable yield before the European took over? The answer is that the Maori had a series of tikanga – rules – which managed, preserved and conserved the fish. One of the fascinations of Matthews’s account of the annual sharkfishing expeditions is the ritual he reports:

Fifty years ago shark-fishing was considered, and looked forward to, as a national holiday by the Rarawa and all the surrounding hapu. The traditional customs and regulations were strictly observed and rigidly enforced.

The season for the fishing of kapeta (dogfish) was restricted to two days’ only in a year. The first time was about full moon in January, and by preference during the night named in the Maori lunar calendar rakanui, or two evenings after the full moon. This fishing was always by night.

The second time of fishing, called the pakoki, was two weeks later, just after the new moon (whawha-ata), and was always held in daylight. This closed the season for the year .

Anyone who killed a shark after this would be liable to the custom of muru, and would be stripped of his property. No one was permitted to commence fishing before the signal to start was given; a violation of this rule would lead to the splitting up of the canoes of the offenders. So far as I can ascertain, the two days’ restriction was a local custom.

Today the Maori recall the tikanga, and practise them as well as they can. Anthropologist Joan Metge’s summary to the tribunal included that shellfish would be cleaned away from the beach. Archaeologist John Coster said the shell middens he investigated were all out of sight from the beach, behind the sand hills. This suggests that some of the current tikanga may have existed for hundreds of years. While the rules had a spiritual significance, they also minimised pollution and preserved and enhanced the shellfish beds. Practically, the tikanga acted as a regulatory framework for a sustainable yield.

Alas, central government took over responsibility for fisheries management in the late 19th century, the Maori lost their rangatiratanga over the fisheries and the depletion occurred.

The European perception was that Maori were practising inefficient pagan rituals, instead of dealing with fishing as a practical activity. But these rituals were effective ways of regulating resources. The record is that the tikanga were more effective than the European laws which replaced them.

My submission to the tribunal argued that a form of local and unified management of the kaimoana would be more efficient. In making this recommendation I drew heavily on the literature of property rights, which argues that full allocation of property rights to a private owner will lead to a better management of resources. As I told the tribunal, I am not an extremist for this view, but the theory probably applies in the case of Ninety Mile Beach, subject to some caveats and rem~dies.

If the tribunal were to find that the rangatiratanga over the beach should be returned to the Maori, the outcome of this return to local and unified control could well be a better management of the fishing resource, and a gain in economic efficiency. In effect I was advocating a return to the (suitably updated) management regime which applied before 1840.

It should be emphasised that the Muriwhenua rangatira, while claiming Ninety Mile Beach, insist they will share it with everyone. Hospitality and generosity are central to the tikanga of the Maori, if not to that of the Pakeha.