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Ngā tohu o te taiao: Observing signs of the natural world to identify seastar over-abundance as a detriment to shellfish survival in Ōhiwa Harbour, Aotearoa New Zealand

Māori understandings and experiences of the natural world encompass not only what is known but how it is known, and the intergenerational connectedness of that knowledge with the environments from which it is derived. Ngā tohu o te taiao (hereafter ‘tohu’), or the cultural and environmental signs and indicators of the natural world, are widely used by kaitiaki or local practitioners to identify trends or changes in the state or health of marine taonga (culturally important) species and their associated environments (Paul-Burke, 2017). Māori worldviews position humans within nature and focus on ways in which cultural understandings and intergenerational connections between people and their bio-physical contexts assist in the retention and protection of biodiversity and ecologically sustainable ecosystems (Lyver et al., 2016). Tohu are a fundamental expression of kaitiakitanga or active guardianship and are based on the primal instinct of survival and recognising that in order to survive one must pay attention to the natural signs and signals thoughtfully, so as to manage our mahinga kai (food harvesting area) and ourselves into the future (Paul-Burke et al., 2020). This article considers the example of the over-abundant eleven-armed seastar (pātangaroa, Coscinasterias muricata; hereafter ‘seastar’) predating on culturally and ecologically important shellfish populations in a traditional mahinga kai of Ōhiwa Harbour in the Bay of Plenty region of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The over-abundance of seastars was considered a contemporary tohu of a degrading harbour. It was deemed imperative by iwi (tribe) members that a trial using quantitative methods to investigate predation pressure of seastars on the green-lipped mussel (kuku or kūtai, Perna canaliculus) population be conducted in the harbour. Between September 2018 and February 2019 field trials were undertaken that prioritised mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) alongside marine science to assist with a better understanding of the degrading harbour. It was hoped that the research would help and promote recovery, in particular but not limited to, the once abundant but now severely reduced mussel reefs in the soft-mud-bottomed harbour.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand
© 2022 Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand. Used with permission.