Restoring mahika kai with tuna research
Otago youth are monitoring tuna (eel) as part of growing their knowledge as kaitiaki (guardians) of important natural food harvesting and wildlife sites.
Ōtākou mana whenua (holders of land rights) are on the path to restoring knowledge that will strengthen their ability to uphold responsibilities as kaitiaki of their mahika kai - natural food harvesting and wildlife resources that they are securing for future generations.
Kāi Tahu rakatahi (youth) are working with Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau Sinclair Wetlands Trust to monitor and survey native longfin and shortfin tuna (eel), comparing modern and traditional tuna capture methods, in a project called Ka Hao te Rakatahi.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu gained ownership of Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau, a 315 hectare wetland between Waihola and Waipori south of Dunedin, with the 1997 settlement of its Treaty of Waitangi claim.
“We were given the area in compensation for a significant lake which was illegally drained for farming, the loss of an intergenerational food basket from the tribe,” says Paulette Tamati-Elliffe, a Trustee for Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau Sinclair Wetlands Trust and Ōtākou hapū member.
Restoring intergenerational knowledge
"Many families have lost that intergenerational memory of living in this environment, especially our traditional knowledge of mahika kai. That has been broken. It is about restoring that, looking once again to build our memory of our environment," Paulette explains.
"In the 20 years since the settlement there has been a focus on the restoration of the wetlands. It is timely now to address aspects of mahika kai, ensuring it is sustainable and that there is intergenerational succession."
Paulette says that her community is looking at the relationship they have with the environment and their knowledge of the tuna, so that they can become more aware of what is happening and become better-informed kaitiaki.
In their research, they are collecting data monthly on the length, weight and numbers of tuna. “Our rakatahi have learnt a lot of skills on how to handle tuna safely, how to set fyke nets correctly and general skills around water safety.”
Turning to traditional methods
The biggest challenge in the project has been making the traditional hīnaki, a basket-like pot set in the open water with bait to attract tuna.
“We started asking aunties, uncles and elders in the community but there was not much knowledge about making them,” Paulette recalls.
The intricate weaving of the harakeke (flax) and kareao (supplejack) netting is difficult to master. “We have learnt a lot and we really appreciate the level of skill that would have been required and developed over generations.”
The locals have also learnt how to know the age the tuna by counting the rings in their otolith (ear bone) - similar to how tree rings are used to reveal a tree's history.
“You can almost go back and see what the water was like at a particular time – whether there would have been a lot to feed on or if it was lean season,” says project facilitator Komene Cassidy.
They are also gathering water quality information, measuring water depth and looking at factors affecting water flow into the wetlands, which is surrounded by farms.
Iwi students involved in finding dam solutions
Two students studying environmental management diplomas at Te Wānanga o Raukawa are undertaking the monitoring work as part of their study.
Tumai Cassidy and Kiliona Tamati-Tupai say they are enjoying learning about the whenua, growing their knowledge about the current state of the wetlands, and seeking solutions for how it can be managed in future to become a sustainable food source.
Tumai says they’re also looking to assess the effect that dams on rivers such as the Mata-au Clutha River have on tuna populations. The dams prevent tuna migrating out to sea to breed. Although a minority are released to sea through trap and transfer programmes, their returning offspring can’t get back upstream due to dam turbines.
Tumai says they’re seeing depletion of the tuna numbers and it’s hoped this work will bring solutions to prevent the decline, with introduced predator species like perch and trout also affecting tuna. “Tuna are still being commercially fished to the point where the commercial fishers can’t get their numbers.”
Revitalising traditional food use
Paulette adds that the project has sprouted ideas for other research to support the tuna to be a sustainable species. “All of our tuna is commercially fished and exported so families don’t have the opportunity to eat it. How do we reintroduce our traditional foods to our whānau?”
“We know that our traditional foods have health benefits. We are looking at returning to use more traditional foods on our marae, to reinvigorate the practices of gathering food instead of going down to a supermarket to get a roast for example.”
She says the project has also identified an opportunity for research on the maramataka, using knowledge of the Māori lunar calendar to inform specific activities in relation to restoring and using mahika kai sites.
“We can look to restore knowledge of reading our night sky; understanding our traditional moon phases and other seasonal indicators to see how these affect different species and plants in this environment during these times,” Paulette explains.
She and the rest of the project whānau are now analysing the data they have collected to see what the bigger picture is around the tuna and how they are faring in the wetlands.
About the project
This project is run by Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou in partnership with Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau Sinclair Wetlands and He Waka Kōtuia with support from the Otago Participatory Science Platform.
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