… as we go about our daily life on land, sea creatures can remain out of sight, out of mind. –Robert Vennell

by Tony Orman

What lies beneath

This book, an introduction to New Zealand’s fish and shellfish, is a “must” for the keen saltwater angler and “boatie”. Robert Vennell — bestselling author of The Meaning of Trees works in Auckland Museum’s Natural Science department. 
Because the creatures of the sea are below the surface few of us, unless we dive, are aware of the often unique creatures and their inter-relationships that go to make up the food chain.  As the author puts it in his preface, “as we go about our daily life on land, sea creatures can remain out of sight out of mind.”

The decline of toheroa

I was pleased to see that the author may well have confirmed one of my suspicions about the decline of the toheroa along the Kapiti Coast. When I was a youngster holidaying at Otaki Beach with my parents and wider family members we would gather toheroa. That was the 1950s but subsequently the toheroas declined to become rare. Strict regulations were put in place. One old experienced local told me the reason was that the government had short-sightedly allowed commercial fishermen to over-fish the snapper.

Now one of the main prey of snapper is paddle crabs. Paddle crabs prey on toheroa. Less snapper meant more paddle crabs to prey on toheroa. The government seemed oblivious.

As Robert Vennell explains “populations of paddle crabs have increased in some areas which suggests signs of an ecosystem out of balance. It is likely the natural predators of paddle crabs – snapper, school shark and elephant fish – have been over-fished in many areas, allowing paddle crab populations to grow.”
Robert Vennell adds paddle crabs are “incredibly effective predators of shellfish and specialise in eating pipi, tutu and toheroa.” My old friend at Otaki was bang on! The toheroa suffered. The reason wasn’t so much, if at all, over-fishing, by the recreational public as it was myopic fisheries “management.”

It has long infuriated me that highly paid public servants in the Ministry of Fisheries don’t seem to realise that over-fishing, throws Nature’s equilibrium out of balance with often disastrous consequences for other species. Are the bureaucrats too preoccupied serving the commercial fishing industry corporates and their insatiable greed?

Fishing on the Kapiti Coast

But I digress. Back to the book. But before I do, I strongly recommend that Ministry of Fisheries scientists and bureaucrats read this book.

The book covers many species and a goodly number are those caught along the Kapiti Coast by recreational anglers. Having caught kingfish off Hunter’s Bank at the southern end of Kapiti I found the chapter on “kingies” especially interesting and kahawai a favourite of so many New Zealanders feature. I regard the kahawai highly.

And there’s snapper, whitebait, crayfish, blue cod, flounder and many others. Even the mysterious lamprey figures as does the native grayling which is now extinct.

One small criticism, I found the inclusion of Maori mythology (fairy tales) somewhat overdone. But it’s a small point to cavil over perhaps in what is a superb book.

Very impressive
This is one very fine book. Informative text with frequent fascinating insights, excellent artwork and photographs plus superb design and layout by the publisher make this a very impressive work.

Very highly recommended. 

Secrets of the Sea by Robert Vennell is published by Harper Collins, Recommended Retail Price $55