Mātauranga Māori key to successful mussel restoration project

by | Sep 5, 2022 | News

A marine science research project based on Māori knowledge, values, traditional resources, and the ecological knowledge of kaumatua has successfully restored mussel populations in Ōhiwa Harbour.

Throughout Aotearoa culturally and ecologically important shellfish such as kuku or kūtai (Perna canaliculus, Green-lipped mussel) have significantly declined and remain vulnerable to a range of pressures in soft bottomed harbours, including legacy impacts, sedimentation, predation, harvesting pressure, climate change and plastic pollution.

Now a practical mātauranga Māori-led marine restoration project in Ōhiwa harbour is suggesting one potential way forward, reports the New Zealand Journal of marine and freshwater science.

Ōhiwa harbour has immense value and importance as a place of great cultural and historical significance. Positioned within the ancestral homelands of Ngāti Awa, Te Ūpokorehe, Te Whakatōhea and Tūhoe, the harbour is considered a “taonga” a priceless treasure that must be looked after to ensure that it continues to provide for the local people. However, throughout the years increased harvesting pressures on shellfish and other seafood with changing environmental conditions have taken its toll on the harbour and in particular, the traditional mussel population. 

In a transdisciplinary project, researchers worked with a traditional Māori master weaver and kaumātua (tribal elders) to develop biodegradable taura kuku (green-lipped mussel spat settlement lines) made from traditional Māori plant biowaste and other natural materials. The taura kuku proved a successful tool for the recruitment and settlement of wild mussel spat assisting shellfish restoration and increasing marine biodiversity in the culturally and ecologically important mahinga kai (traditional food basket) of Ōhiwa harbour.

Results from the project showed that the taura kuku (spat settlement lines) made from natural materials were just as effective as commercial plastic spat lines. After five months, the taura kuku biodegraded and sank to the ocean floor, where mussels could reattach to form new mussel beds. Three new early-stage mussel beds formed near the restoration stations over the course of the project, increasing the overall abundance of green-lipped mussels nearly tenfold from 78,000 in 2019 to 745,000 in 2021, and enhancing the overall biodiversity of the harbour.

“Areas in the world where Indigenous peoples speak their languages and continue to enact their traditional practices correlate strongly with areas of high biodiversity”, says Kura Paul-Burke, the study’s lead author.

“This study showcases a project which successfully positioned mātauranga Māori and marine science working together, using traditional Māori resources and practices to solve contemporary environmental problems”, says Paul-Burke. “Co-developing the research with iwi partners at all levels and all stages was fundamental to the project, which is ultimately about the future of our harbour, our kaimoana and our mokopuna. It is always better when we work together.”

Mātauranga Māori

Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) is grounded in place-based, multi-generational knowledge and the connection of that knowledge with the environments from which it is derived. It takes for granted that all elements of the natural world are related, and it is upon those relationships that survival depends. A Māori worldview advocates for the responsibility of each generation to pass onto their descendants at least as good a supply of resources as they, themselves, had inherited. For Māori, the wellness of the environment is a direct reflection on the wellness of the people. The Ōhiwa harbour research project was an example of a practical mātauranga Māori-led marine restoration project.

Kaupapa Māori research is a theory of change. It normalises the validity and legitimacy of the Māori language, knowledge and cultural practices. It attempts to empower communities by using the past as a learning tool in conceptualising what Māori need to do to ensure that our perspectives and knowledge are recognised as real, relevant and appropriate within marine science, research and conservation approaches.

The study was lead by Kura Paul-Burke (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Whakahemo) a Te Aka Mātuatua/School of Science & Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao/Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato, Tauranga, New Zealand. See the full New Zealand Journal of marine and freshwater science report here. 

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