Shellfish were, and continue to be, an important part of the diet of Māori living on the coast. Traditionally, shellfish-gathering was the work of women and girls, who harvested a variety of species such as toheroa, tuatua and pipi (all Paphies species), pāua (Haliotis species), tuangi (Austrovenus stutchburyi), rock oyster (Saccostrea cucullata), dredge oyster (Ostrea chilensis), mussels (Perna canaliculus, Mytilus edulis) and scallops (Pecten novaezelandiae). These are still commonly eaten today. Many other coastal shellfish that were once eaten, such as Cook’s turban (ngāruru, Cookia sulcata) and ringed dosinia (harihari, Dosinia anus), are seldom gathered by Māori or Europeans today.
Since the 1990s Asian immigrants have begun harvesting less well-known coastal shellfish, such as limpets and cat’s eyes, for food.
Shells were used by Māori in a variety of ways:
- Fish hooks. Cook’s turban shells were used to fashion the tips of hooks, and the iridescent inner shell of pāua was used for fishing lures.
- Scrapers and cutters. Mussel shells were used for cutting hair and for scraping flax leaves in order to expose the fibres below the outer green layer. Tuatua shells were used for scaling fish.
- Trumpets. Trumpets known as pūtara were made from New Zealand’s largest sea snail, Charonia lampas, by fitting a wooden mouthpiece to the top of an empty shell. A loud note is produced because the sound is amplified within the shell. The large, rare triton shell (Charonia tritonis) was also used. Live tritons are not found in New Zealand, although sometimes their dead shells wash up on northern shores.
- Adornment. Tusk shells were used as anklets and necklaces, and pieces of pāua shell were sometimes hung on skirts.
- Inlay in carvings. Pieces of pāua shell were used as inlay in wooden and bone carvings, often representing eyes.
- Bowls and containers. Dosinia species and scallop shells were used to hold pigments for tattooing. Pāua ashtrays, used by Māori and Pakeha alike, came into their own after the 1950s.
In New Zealand, green-lipped mussels and Pacific oysters are commercially farmed with aquaculture methods. Pāua, scallops, queen scallops and dredge oysters are commercially harvested from the wild.
For nearly 20 years after the end of the Second World War, pāua earrings, necklaces, rings and souvenirs were manufactured solely by disabled servicemen. Since this monopoly on the shell has been lifted, there has been a huge increase in the range of pāua jewellery, often set in silver, from craftspeople using both contemporary and traditional designs.
Pāua pearls have been produced since the mid-1990s. They are grown as half-round pearls inside the living pāua. The two halves are glued together to produce the finished product.
Crushed shells are used as poultry food additives, as loose paving in gardens, and for decoration. In the past, they were taken from beach deposits around the country, such as at Quail Island in Canterbury and the extensive shell ridges in the Firth of Thames. Another source is the by-product of oyster, mussel and scallop harvests.