Early European settlers were astonished at the complexity and scale of early Ngati Porou fishing. Men would paddle large canoes – waka – far out to sea carrying huge seine nets called kaharoa, which were up to nine metres deep and sometimes two kilometres long.
This required great leadership, technical ability and cooperation, as well as age-old knowledge, or matauranga, about where to fish. Upon return to shore, the catch was divided amongst large family groups for distribution, and also preserved for trade with other iwi.
Eventually we owned our own large sailing vessels and traded with other iwi and even Australia.
When we signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi Ngati Porou expected our right to sustain ourselves by fishing – as we had for centuries – would be protected. Article Two of Te Tiriti in particular should have guaranteed us the right to catch and trade fish to support our families and our way of life, in a new environment of peace and rule of law.
As they did in other parts of the world, European settlers, businessmen and financiers set out to acquire resources in New Zealand for their own benefit and backed by laws passed in their favour. Resources in the ocean were as attractive to them as those on land.
In 1866 the Oyster Fisheries Act placed closed seasons on collection of kaimoana (seafood) and by the end of the century Maori commercial harvesting of kaimoana was banned.
These actions went alongside the suppression of Maori rights in many other spheres. As well as these legislative obstacles, lack of access to capital and resources also isolated Ngati Porou from our most important economic activity, fishing – which had nourished our societal as well as our physical health.
Along with other iwi Ngati Porou remained determined to see justice prevail, and our leaders continued to work hard to restore our right to fish commercially. By the mid-1980s decision makers – to their credit – began to appreciate it was futile to attempt to build an enlightened modern society on a foundation of theft and deceit.
In 1987 a Maori property right to the sea was upheld by the High Court. The court agreed that iwi had never surrendered their fishing rights guaranteed by Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
When the debate on the Waitangi Fisheries Settlement began in 1989 Ngati Porou was at the forefront to advocate and protect Maori fisheries interests and rights. We lobbied politicians. We took costly legal action to the Privy Council and United Nations to protect the rights and interests of iwi. Most importantly, we kept our hapu and marae informed of key fisheries developments so we could make informed choices about our future as a people.
After these years of determined hard work the Crown began to settle Treaty claims with iwi. In 1989 the Maori Fisheries Act gave Maori a share in New Zealand's Quota Management System (QMS). In 1992 the government allocated a cash settlement to Māori which they used to buy a half share of New Zealand’s giant fishing company Sealord. Maori also received a guarantee of future quota, and the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission was established to allocate the fishing settlement resources to iwi.
“The significance of the fisheries settlement is that it was about iwi, about Maori maintaining a significant stake in what was a huge part of our tradition. Ngati Porou are essentially a coastal people. We had inland settlements, but if you look at where most people lived it was on or near the coast, and the lands we fought hardest to retain post-Treaty were the lands nearest the coast. There is a strong legacy element to the settlement and it is important that we maintain a connection to that legacy. We need to stimulate some greater economic activity in this area. It’s not just about money, ultimately it is about survival. If there’s nothing for the communities here they will die. It is at the heart of which we are the land the marae the history and traditions that go with that. We have to ensure that those traditions survive, that there are still people sitting on the paepae of our maraes, and that we continue to practice and pass on all the traditions we have inherited because it’s our watch now, and we don’t want to lose it on our watch.”
Ngati Porou Holding Company
Division of these resources between iwi became a drawn-out affair until 2004 when the Māori Fisheries Act was passed, which divided settlements based on both the size of iwi coastline and iwi population.
The Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission became Te Ohu Kaimoana. Te Ohu Kaimoana exists both to support iwi fishing aspirations and to oversee the transfer of assets to iwi fishing arms like Ngati Porou Seafoods. Te Ohu Kaimoana also established Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd, now New Zealand’s biggest fishing company.
Ngati Porou began a consultation process with our people in 2000. In 2002 we established our own fisheries company – one of the first to be approved. In 2006 Ngati Porou Seafoods Limited received fishing quota as well as shares in Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd. Today Ngati Porou Seafoods Group is one of the few iwi businesses in Aotearoa to process our own kaimoana and participate in key aspects of industry supply and value chains.
If you look at this from a standard company accounting point of view the overheads and risk of this complete participation don’t always justify the return on capital.
If you look at it from a Poroutanga point of view – and we do – it makes perfect sense. We build knowledge about the industry, we build capacity, we create jobs in our region, we allow our people to build expertise, we keep our options open to find ways to add value, and we look to put our unique Ngati Porou spin on things, as we did with our smoked white fish range Ahia.
“I would like to think that when most of us alive today are dead, those people coming after us will have a sustainable economic development arm that sustains the cultural survival of Ngati Porou. The goal is survival and I put it like this: My goal is for my granddaughter to speak to her granddaughter about things that are going on in the iwi and in the world in our dialect.
“In my view for that to occur, a number of conditions have to be met, the least of which is that our dialect has to be alive. We are talking about identity.
“One of the conditions that is essential but certainly not sufficient is that we have to have economic development wherewithal. We need independence as a people from government programmes. We don’t need to be self-determining, although that’s part of the picture, but we have an element of independence, because the more we are dependent the more tenuous our survival.”
Ngati Porou Seafoods Group