After more than half a century Green Lipped mussels have not returned to the soft seafloor of the Hauraki Gulf. However only 100km north at the mouth of the Whangarei Harbour something magic happened. Out of nowhere a huge bed of mussels appeared. I was slow to document it but here are some photos by Dr. Mary A. Sewell in April 2016.
The bed was quickly consumed. Locals could park their cars a few meters from the beds. There were reports of people turning up with wheel barrows and of cars and boats being confiscated for those who exceeded their limits.
The beds have now been decimated, (An MPI officer thinks the beds did not disappear but were greatly reduced in their first season, I did not find the original bed on my first trip). I turned up eight months later at low tide and followed some locals to the remaining beds. They looked like this:
remaining bed ran along the edge of the drop off about 4m at low tide and supported a wide range of marine life. On my way back to the beach I wondered what conditions bought about this beautiful natural phenomena? There may well have been sufficient spat from mussels growing on the refinery wharf, but did a closure of the cockle beds promote natural the recovery? Could the neighbouring marine reserve have played a part? Was this a once off or part of the recovery of the Whangarei harbour since the Firth cement works has cleaned up its act? Then I spotted these:
It seems the cockle and pipi shells have created a firm substrate for the juvenile mussels to attach to. Is this how the bed started of? No hydroids or red filamentous algae to attach to, just green algae and shell? If so this is a recipe worth exploring for aided restoration elsewhere in New Zealand. Local iwi (Patuharakeke Te Iwi Trust Board) have proposed a 2-year temporary closure to the take of all shellfish at Mair Bank and Marsden Bank, Whangarei.
Note there was a large pipi & cockle die off on the shell bank where mussels appeared.
UPDATE: Nov 2017
There are isolated individuals ranging for a hundred meters or so west of the main bed. Most mussels were around 6-8cm long. I could not find blue mussels in the bed, I did however see fish eggs, octopus, crabs, evidence of fish feeding on the mussels, triplefins and many shorebirds enjoying the exposed reef. The mussels were also growing in smaller patches off the edge of the sand bank into the channel where I found the remnants in Dec 16.
Hopefully this bed continues to regenerate despite the massive human harvesting effort. Identifying and protecting the seed stock would go a long way towards this.
The current here is very strong, here is a short video of 1,000s of young pipi swept in current. They seem to be regenerating.
UPDATE: Jan 2018
Two insights after talking to locals.
- Mair Bank was once covered in a thick carpet of large mussels with live pipi underneath.
- In the late 1950s / early 1960s (1963?) there was a commercial operation that dredged the whole bank, taking out all the mussels.
- The pipi die off could have helped the mussel bed by providing a settlement substrate. The pipi could have consumed mussel spat that may have perviously tried to settle the bed.
Also the beds look choice at high tide, I saw sea hares and piper fish. Look how many species in this photo:
UPDATE: Feb 2018
I managed to track down a report which mapped the bed in Feb 2016. They worked out that the mussel bed then covered an area of approximately 12,800m2 and had an average coverage 38.3%.
UPDATE: Jul 2020
Conditions were rubbish but I had a good look around and could not find the mussel beds. I could not see any mussel shells so I assume the mussels were taken by humans and the rahui on all shellfish in the area was not strong enough protection. The Northland Regional Council could now look at protection measures given the Motiti decision.
There is a lot of algae on the shellbanks which could help the beds return as it is important for the initial recruitment phase for several species of shellfish. We need to find the original adult mussel bed that seeded this bed and protect it so it does not disappear like this one.