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How can Māori stories help whitebait?

Ōtaki locals have been learning how to care for their rivers and īnanga (whitebait) to help restore fish numbers and make whitebaiting sustainable.

Rangatahi (youth), whānau and teachers in Ōtaki have been getting to know their local estuary – a popular spot for whitebaiting – with help from scientists and kaitiaki (environmental guardians).

The regional project, co-run by Whitebait Connection Wellington and Te Aho Tū Roa, focuses on exploring Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge and scientific perspectives) and science behind estuaries and īnanga.

In Ōtaki, this knowledge was shared using a bilingual approach, in recognition of the strong te reo Māori community at which the project was aimed.

Checking straw for eggs

Te Atawhai Kumar, Poutautoko (Facilitator) of Te Aho Tū Roa programme in Te Ūpoko o te Ika, says that a core part of the project is sharing locally-focused traditional stories that illustrate connections of people to people and people to place.

“Sharing stories about this river and the roles Ātua [higher beings] have with it – from rocks and soil to Tāne-Mahuta and Tamanui-te-rā – helps these rangatahi connect to this place through their whakapapa [ancestral ties]. These stories reaffirm to them the value of Mātauranga Māori and Pūtaiao, rather than if we just explain scientific information.”

The rangatahi measured the speed of the river, along with the water temperature, conductivity (mineral concentration of dissolved minerals) and clarity.

Measuring the river's speedAnother group checking the water clarity

The students then took samples of the water and counted the number and variety of insects and arthropods they found. This helps to paint a picture of how healthy a river is, with the healthiest having lots of different native species.

“My favourite part was looking at the bugs because I really liked that I got to use my hands and it wasn’t just classwork and talking,” says Oriwa, 13, at Te Kura-ā-Iwi o Whakatupuranga Rua Mano.

Checking nets for bugs

The students also learnt about how the maramataka (Māori lunar calendar) can be a deciding factor in how likely locals are to get a good catch on a particular day.

“My mum catches īnanga a lot. Sometimes she has a bucketful, other times nothing,” says Aniwaniwa, 12, from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito. “I think this work’s really important. We’ve already lost so many of our animals – like all the birds that have gone extinct – and I don’t want to lose our īnanga.”

Classmate Tahu, 12, agrees: “It’s good we’re learning how to make sure our [whitebaiting] tradition isn't lost too.”

Sorting river bugsThe students checked some straw bales that the kaitiaki had left on the banks for the adults to lay eggs in, but did not find any.

Zoe Studd at Whitebait Connection – who co-led the day’s activities with colleague Te Kawa Robb alongside Te Atawhai – tells us that the adult fish look for a full moon (‘Rākau-nui’) or new moon (‘Whiro’) to decide when to lay eggs, and this can affect findings. But in this case, she points out, the egg-laying season had actually finished. Most of the larvae had already gone to sea and won’t be back until the spring, as the young fish we call īnanga or whitebait.

“But we still wanted to do the straw bales and egg checking part, so that the students know how to do it when the time is right,” she says.

Rolly Raureti, kaiako pūtaiao (Māori science teacher) at Te Rito tells us he found learning about the lifecycle of īnanga and where they lay their eggs particularly eye-opening.

“I didn’t realise just how far downstream the fish lay the eggs – I thought it was much further up and away from people,” he says. “I’ve got a much better understanding of the damage we might be doing when we come down to the estuary – a lot of us don’t realise the eggs are right there.”

Twelve-year-old Hine Raumati from Te Rito adds, “I liked all of it! I’ve had a great time and learnt heaps!”

Group photo

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About the project

WC logoTATR logoThe Wellington region project is co-run by Whitebait Connection Wellington and Te Aho Tū Roa. It is part of Whitebait Connection’s wider-reaching National Inanga Spawning Project supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

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Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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