The bountiful hauls of kaimoana integral to East Cape iwi have long been the envy of those inland.

When manuhiri would arrive from across the motu they’d be treated to hākari (feasts) of kina, kōura (crayfish), kākahi (mussels), pāua, kahawai – the list goes on.

“That was the expectation,” says Ora Barlow-Tukaki, of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui.

“To be able to do that was a source of mana, or pride, for the hapū of the coast.”

While overfishing has impacted a lot of this tīkanga – custom – climate change threatens to eliminate it.

Shellfish are particularly vulnerable, largely immobile and unable to simply move habitat as the waters warmed and became more acidic.

Ora Barlow-Tukaki says climate change is robbing Māori of their identity. Photo / supplied
Ora Barlow-Tukaki says climate change is robbing Māori of their identity. Photo / supplied 

Barlow-Tukaki said already they’d noticed the shells of pāua becoming thinner, and the inside smaller.

But it’s also the effects on land to worry about, from the mountains to sea.

The climate of the East Cape is predicted to become much drier, with more “extreme hot days”, but also more intense storms when they did arrive.

With some of the softest terrain in the country and a lot of it still recovering from mass burn-offs in the early colonial days, these conditions are predicted increase the already huge amounts of sediment and topsoil being washed off the whenua.

Already on the eastern side of the cape, the Waiapu River – sacred to Ngāti Porou – is choked with 35 million tonnes of sediment each year – 17 per cent of the entire country’s from a catchment representing just 0.6 per cent of the land.

On top of all of this the Raukūmara Ranges were on the verge of ecological collapse under a plague of introduced pests, meaning when those huge storms arrived there would be little flora to catch the water as it fell, and little to help temper the climate in times of drought.


Climate change is set to bring more extreme weather to the Raukumara Ranges on the East Cape, with impacts felt from mountain to sea. Photo / File
Climate change is set to bring more extreme weather to the Raukumara Ranges on the East Cape, with impacts felt from mountain to sea. Photo / File

Barlow-Tukaki said this loss of vegetation and influx of sediment had multiple impacts on the coast.

When it doesn’t rain the rivers nearly run dry – something they’ve seen already this recent summer – because there is little vegetation to hold the water and maintain a steady flow, while also depriving the rivermouth ecosystems of vital nutrient loads.

And when it does rain the rivers flood, bank to bank, and flush that sediment out to the coast, where it becomes stuck and smothers shellfish beds and even kelp beds, which act as fish nurseries.

This was one example of how climate change was predicted to have a greater impact on Māori, and indeed indigenous peoples worldwide.

In the Arctic as the ice melted indigenous groups were having to drastically change their entire food-gathering processes. In Brazil, various tribes were being displaced by fires, and activists persecuted and even murdered.

The Government here too has recognised as among the most vulnerable groups to climate-change impacts due to their “significant reliance on the environment as a cultural, social and economic resource”.

The Māori economy relied heavily on primary industries, and many communities were near the coast. Already many urupā (burial grounds) and marae were being flooded or washed into the sea.

“You can’t say this is my maunga, this is my awa, these are our waahi tapu springs, when they are not there,” Barlow-Tukaki said.

“Or these are our taonga species, our kai, our tikanga, when we can no longer practice it.

“So climate change could take away our identity.”

Māori were in a prime position to bear witness to climate change, Barlow-Tukaki said.

Mātauranga, or knowledge, was based on observations of things like the stars, the seasons, and how they all related with the plants and various species.

“Already we are seeing certain trees and plants flower and seed much earlier, which throws out the connection with when various kaimoana, and harvest are ready,” Barlow-Tukaki said.

On the East Cape they were not sitting idly. Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou to the east successfully lobbied the Government for funding for their Raukūmara Pae Maunga Restoration Project.

Not only would the $34 million project help restore the ngahere and hold the crippling land together protecting their rohe from the impacts of climate change, but a restoring forest had the added benefits of developing a carbon sink and helping mitigate effects.

Barlow-Tukaki said their partnership model with the Department of Conservation, which had mātauranga Māori and tīkanga at its heart, could be replicated across the country as communities sought to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

“I think there needs to be a step change in this space, not just about consultation with Māori, but true partnership, driven up from the ground by iwi, by the community, in healthy relationship with each other and properly resourced.”

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said supporting Māori to help lead the transition to a low carbon future for Aotearoa was a priority.

“I have been clear that our response to the climate emergency needs to uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”

This included ensuring a genuine partnership with iwi/Māori that emphasised rangatiratanga and enabled iwi/Māori to exercise their role as kaitiaki.

The Government would also be working closely with iwi and hapū as part of developing a National Adaptation Plan, Shaw said.