Three hours spent gathering 10,548 cockles earned the gatherers a total of $8,000 in fines and the loss of two vehicles in Christchurch District Court yesterday (20 August).
Baoyi Mao, 24, Xue Jin Mao, 53, Wencoi Mao, 22, and Xihuo Lu, 46, all of Christchurch, pleaded guilty to a charge of possessing more than three times the daily recreational limit of cockles, laid by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Each gatherer was fined $2,000, and the 2006 Toyota Hi Ace van and the 2007 Toyota Landcruiser that were carrying the cockles were forfeited to the Crown.
MPI received a tip off on 20 April that a group was taking a very large amount of shellfish near the mouth of the Ashley River, north of Christchurch.
The group left in two vehicles after spending about three hours gathering shellfish. MPI compliance staff stopped the group and found 4,767 cockles in one vehicle and 5,781 cockles in the other - a total of 10,548 cockles in nine sacks.
A Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga spokesperson said: "Our whānau rely on those tuaki (cockles) and the other mahinga kai of our takiwā (area) and we are particularly concerned that people still think it's OK to take so many.
"These tuaki beds have been used by our whānau for centuries. We have managed them so that they will be there for future generations.
"Over the last 15 years whānau and Tangata Tiaki/Kaitiaki (guardians) have been reseeding the tuaki beds to improve stock numbers and size. Tangata Tiaki/Kaitiaki note that tuaki are not just an important food source, but are also an integral part of the estuarine and coastal ecosystem. They filter water and therefore help keep it clean.
"Tangata Tiaki/Kaitiaki are grateful to the locals at Waikuku for keeping an eye on things and are delighted that they were so quick to contact the Ministry for Primary Industries. We are also extremely pleased that the Fisheries Officers were able to intervene so quickly and return the majority of the tuaki back into the hāpua/lagoon."
MPI District Compliance Manager Canterbury/Westland Peter Hyde said it is definitely the largest haul of cockles any of his staff can remember being taken from the Canterbury area, and may well be the largest illegal haul in New Zealand for many years.
"It took the four officers over an hour to count what turned out to be 10,548 cockles."
The daily limit for recreational cockle gathering in Canterbury is 150 per person.
"We were delighted to get a timely tip-off from the public, as the illegal activity was happening, and this allowed us to apprehend these people.
"However, a prosecution like this is nothing to celebrate, as shellfish beds can't take this sort of pressure for long."
Mr Hyde says it's a fisher's obligation to know the rules for the area they are fishing.
Information about all limits and sizes, including closures and other rules, can be found on the MPI website.
Fishing rules pamphlets are available at MPI offices and at many fishing shops, or text "App" to 9889 to have the NZ Fishing Rules App sent to your smart phone.
MPI encourages people to report any suspicious fishing activity to 0800 4 POACHER (0800 476 224). All calls are confidential.
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