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Once a year, a group of Māori families used to moor their boats beside a steep, craggy island in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds and clamber through thick scrub in search of the deep, earthy burrows of sooty shearwater seabirds they call tītī. “You’d have to be really, really keen—you’d be on your hands and knees most of the way,” says Glenice Paine, a member of one of those families. But it was worth it, she says: the fattened chicks people pulled out of those burrows were highly prized for their dark, oily meat.
Paine has never experienced the tītī harvest herself: it has been banned on the island of Motungārara, where her family traditionally harvested, for over 50 years. Now, a new study by Paine and her colleagues suggests that restoring customary tribal rights to manage tītī across the Marlborough Sounds area—including harvesting them if numbers permit—could play a critical role in ensuring the vulnerable birds’ survival, while also preserving local traditions, knowledge, and relationships with the land.
While there are some 20 million sooty shearwaters spread between Chile and Australia, their global number is in decline and they are listed as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In Marlborough Sounds, at the north end of New Zealand’s South Island, a small breeding population is scattered across a handful of uninhabited islands.
In the face of declining bird numbers, poaching, and pests like the invasive Norway rat that likes to eat eggs and chicks, the national Department of Conservation (DOC) banned the tītī harvest across the Marlborough Sounds in the 1960s and later began a pest eradication program. But these measures haven’t worked for a host of reasons, including continued poaching, ongoing predation by pests, habitat loss, and changes to the environments on the birds’ migration paths. Elders estimate there were 800 breeding pairs on Motungārara in 1960, while today there are around 100.
In 2007, local Māori collaborated with the DOC to revive the small-scale harvest on nearby Tītī Island, which has about 1,300 breeding pairs. Since then, they’ve successfully harvested a few birds each year without noticeably impacting the population. Now researchers are suggesting that restoring tribal management across the Marlborough Sounds might be beneficial.
For many Indigenous communities, “eating the species you’re trying to protect is completely normal,” says Amelia Geary, the study’s lead author and a regional manager at the New Zealand-based conservation nonprofit Forest and Bird.
For Māori, there is a strong cultural incentive to keep tītī populations healthy: the bird is considered a delicacy. “Even though they weren’t a major food source, it’s a taonga [treasure] for us,” says Paine. “If you’re having some important occasion, it’s just lovely to have those sorts of things on the table.”
Traditionally, tītī harvesters took steps to ensure sustainability, says Geary, who interviewed eight local elders about their traditions. For example, tribal members would make a preliminary visit before the annual harvest time to assess bird numbers and determine how many chicks could be taken. They would also observe rules like only taking every other chick they found to disperse the harvest across the island, putting very small chicks back, and leaving burrows intact so nesting pairs would return the following year. “Some years hardly any were taken,” says Geary, “and in other years they enjoyed a big feast.”
Reinstating the small-scale harvest on Tītī Island has given tribe members a fresh opportunity to stay connected to the birds and their habitat, says Geary. “Through the process of harvest, they ensure the appropriate tikanga [protocol] is followed,” she says, while also noting any changes to the habitat or pest incursions.
Henrik Moller, an ecologist who has studied traditional tītī harvesting on Stewart Island at New Zealand’s southern tip, says harvest rights have motivated the local tribe to put a lot of effort into pest control. “Harvesting is a huge part of their identity and connection to place,” he says, “and this spurs care for the wider ecosystem.”
Restoring management rights to local Māori might also deter poaching by Māori and non-Māori alike as tribal authority may be respected more than the DOC, says Paine. In another New Zealand study, researchers found that when a Māori tribe regained management of a native shrub, kiekie, the species began to recover as other tribes stopped overharvesting it.
The new study confirms that on Motungārara, the tītī population is, for now, not large enough to sustain even a very small harvest. But Paine says the group of families hopes to establish a collaborative management agreement with the DOC, similar to that on Tītī Island, so they can rekindle their relationship with the island and the birds.