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Indigenous Marine Protection Practices



I think we’ve all experienced that glee (or frustration) from elderly relatives when they get to say “that’s how we used to do it!”. From packaging groceries in paper bags, using newspaper as bin liners or sewing up clothing instead of chucking them. 

Our growing understanding of the finite nature of our resources has us returning to the practices of our penny pinching elders, but the true wisdom of caring for our natural world goes back so much further. Indigenous cultures have always known how to live sustainably with our natural resources because it comes from a place of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our earth. 

A few of our OSOF policy team members were interested in briefly exploring the various ways that indigenous knowledge protects our oceans in Aotearoa and around the world…


Māori see the natural world as a part of their whakapapa (ancestry). Everything is connected, so there’s no distinction between the natural, physical and spiritual worlds. Nature is treated as something inherently deserving of respect, rather than something we can ascribe monetary value to. Māori view nature as a reciprocal relationship – you care for nature and it will care for you. Natural resources can be used, but only by people who contribute to the community that the resource is a part of.  

The sea is incredibly significant to tangata whenua. In Te Ao Māori (the Māori world), wai (water) is a source of all life – it gives life, provides life and sustains it – this is also known as mauri. The fisheries, or kaimoana and the acts of collecting kai (food) are important to tangata whenua because it maintains their connection to Tangaroa (god of the sea), their whakapapa, mauri and mana.  

Te Tiriti o Waitangi fully protects the rights of Māori to their fisheries, through exercising kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga. Some argue that having applications in place to request for mātaitai reserves, taiāpure or temporary closures/ rāhui means Māori are able to practice rangatiratanga fully, but others argue that because the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) have control over the applications, this isn’t entirely the case. 

Despite this, here in Aotearoa there are a few ways that tangata whenua can sustainably manage and care for their traditional coastal and fishing areas. When implemented correctly, mātaitai reserves, taiāpure and temporary closures/ rāhui work well.

Mātaitai Reserves

Mātaitai reserves are traditional fishing grounds that have special significance to tangata whenua. When established, mātaitai reserves usually ban commercial fishing, but allow for traditional fishing. Tangata whenua can apply to MPI for an area to become a mātaitai reserve, and from there, guardians or kaitiaki are appointed to manage the reserves. Kaitiaki are usually (nearly always) tangata whenua, and sometimes bylaws are implemented to help manage these reserves.


Taiāpure are estuaries or coastal areas that are significant to tangata whenua for either cultural, spiritual or mahinga kai reasons. A committee is nominated by the local Māori community to manage all types of fishing. Mātaitai reserves could be managed alongside taiāpure, where the former is only for traditional fishing and the latter allows all types of fishing but is still managed by tangata whenua. An example is the East Otago Taiāpure Management Committee, which has implemented regulations for net setting and bag limits to protect depleting paua stocks.

Rāhui and temporary closures

Rāhui are used in different ways throughout Aotearoa, depending on their context. Rāhui are normally classed as temporary closures or restrictions on an area. They are often used when there is a drowning or a death – this death makes it tapu (forbidden) to swim or consume seafood in the area for a certain amount of time. It can also be used as a form of environmental management or kaitiakitanga if the water is unsafe to swim in or eat from, for example, from contamination.

In the fisheries space, anyone can apply for a temporary closure through MPI, but it’s mainly for tangata whenua to utilise. Usually an iwi or hapu will place a rāhui over collecting shellfish or seafood in an area to protect stock numbers. Iwi or hapu then apply for an official temporary closure through MPI, which gives the rāhui legal support. Long term temporary closures/ rāhui (usually two years at a time) are for stock management when species are low in numbers, or to prohibit certain fishing methods. 

More information on Area Management Tools available to Tangata Whenua to help them sustainably manage traditional customary fishing grounds can be found here.


In Canada, Ocean Protection Plans are being implemented. They are inuit and indigenous/First Nations-lead initiatives, with backing from the government to protect oceans and coastal areas that the communities have had generational connections to.

In Samoa the high level of marine knowledge in indigenous communities was recognised through working with these communities to develop Village Fisheries Management Plans. Each village analysed the problems they were facing and decided on community undertakings like Marine Protected Areas, which were the first community-owned marine reserves in the country.

Colonised countries are learning to accept that indigenous cultures have always known how to live in harmony with the natural world. We have so much to learn from those who have lived experience with our oceans, and we hope to see this indigenous knowledge leading the way in the future.

Reading list:

Why Indigenous knowledge should be an essential part of how we govern the world’s oceans.

A guide to Indigenous science, management and governance of Australian coastal waters

In Chile, Indigenous Management of Coastal Areas Improves Marine Conservation

Comparing the Marine Protected Area Network Planning Process in British Columbia, Canada and New Zealand – Planning for cooperative partnerships with Indigenous communities

Indigenous peoples’ rights and marine protected areas

Recognizing the contribution of Indigenous Protected Areas to marine protected area management in Australia

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