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Warming Seas and Māori Food Sources, New Zealand

Alice Huaut

June 14th, 2023

Unprecedented Water Heatwaves

Since mid-January 2023, New Zealand’s coastlines have been subject to unprecedented heatwaves. At its peak, heatwaves caused certain coastlines to warm up by more than four degrees. Furthermore, the Winter season is approaching, yet the Seasonal Climate outlook stated on June 1st that the marine heatwave conditions are persisting in New Zealand’s coastal waters.

Peter Langlands, fishing for 30 years in the coastlines of New Zealand’s South Islands, and writing for the neighborhood fishing magazine, estates he never encountered anything like it before the accumulation. Salmon, penguins, kelp, and marine sponges all died in large numbers. In addition, warm-water fish are moving further south, due to the warmer ocean temperatures, and whale migration patterns have changed.

The conditions affecting Aotearoa offer a glimpse into the future of oceans under climate change as scientists and communities start to consider the effects. If global warming continues, it is predicted that ocean temperatures will rise by an average of 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Oceans are currently changing so quickly that species and ecosystems are struggling to keep up. Outside of scientific communities, people have become aware of the ocean's severe changes.

Consequences for Māori Tribes

Loss of Food Sources

For hundreds of years, Māori tribes have kept track of changes to the lands and oceans while developing food-collecting methods, specific to the environment surrounding them.

For example, the Te Whakatōhea tribe searches for pipi, a native clam, in the soft muddy sand of waist-deep water shorelines. However, mudflats and estuaries are changing, due to new currents, rising sea levels, and farm runoff. Some food sources, such as cockles and mussels, have been declining or going extinct. As a part of the Nagāi Tahu hunter-gatherer tribe, Lisa Tumahai, chairperson of the Nagāi Tahu, says, “If you can’t harvest māhinga kai–traditional foods–., you can’t sustain yourself. You can’t bring food to the table”.

Loss of Culture

Besides being a practical and economic practice, Māhinga kai is an essential cultural practice. Mahinga kai is essential to the process of welcoming guests and to sustaining ties with the environment, ancestors, and traditional knowledge systems.

For the Whakatōhea, the subject of kuku (a green-lipped mussel) is currently a major area of concern. The community views the mussel as a taonga, a cultural treasure. Unfortunately, the mussels have shown to be extremely vulnerable to heatwaves because they are firmly attached to the rocks and unable to move when the water or sunshine becomes too hot for them to live in. In 2020, a heatwave caused hundreds of thousands of mussels to perish.

Not only are the mussels "part of the cultural fabric" of the Whakatōhea, but they regulate and preserve the environment by filtering water and helping store carbon in their shells. The distinctive role of nature as a foundation for Whakatōhea culture results in the creation of strong affinity and respect toward ecosystems. Dr Kimberley Maxwell, a Whakatōhea scientist with the Moana Project states “A lot of our cultural knowledge is contained around these species – so in losing these taonga, we actually lose part of our culture.”


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