What's the point of food you can't eat?

At a meeting on an East Coast marae, to discuss marine reserves, there was a slide show. Some of the photographs were of holiday-makers looking at the abundant marine life in the Marine Reserve at Leigh. Afterwards one of the elders said, quite gently but firmly, that he didn't see any point in kai (food) you couldn't eat.

I've forgotten what I replied, but whatever it was, it lacked force, because I agreed with him - up to a point. He was reminding me that, while it was very nice, near Auckland, to provide entertainment for leisured and affluent city folk, in his area people had more serious things to worry about - like getting enough food to eat, or money to purchase essentials.

At the time I was mainly concerned with my insensitivity, and how to atone for it. Later I had a chance to think more deeply about what he'd said, and what I should have replied (after an apology for including matters of little local concern). I should have led the discussion back to really important points, using his remark as a focus. For, of course, in another context, he already knew the sense of food you could not eat. It happens all the time when we keep some of this year's crop as seed for next year.

When growing kumara or beans, if we want a crop next year, we need to keep some seed. This seed is not those bits we didn't need to eat. It is put aside first, and kept at all costs. Next year's seed is not some low-grade left-over, it is selected as the best. When it has been safely put aside, it may be looked at, but not eaten.

Is there a useful comparison here? Yes and no. Obviously some fish and shellfish need to be kept to breed, if stocks are to be maintained. However, in the sea, the relationship between what we leave now and what we can expect to have in the future is usually very obscure. Which of these points is more important: the known general principle or our ignorance of exactly how it should be applied?

Put in this way the answer is obvious, and simply an extension of our gardening practice. Even for kumara and beans, the gardener doesn't know exactly what the return will be next year. The weather and other circumstances cause considerable variation in yield. So the prudent gardener keeps more seed to cover the uncertainty, and stores them in more than one place, to reduce the risks of loss.

In the sea, we are very ignorant of the way stocks relate to reproduction, even in the best-studied fisheries. The little we do know indicates large differences in juvenile recruitment from year to year even when stocks are constant. It would clearly be prudent to keep back from harvest a significant amount of each stock. It would be sensible to make sure these breeding reserves were some of the best. It would be wise to have these untouched stocks spread about in different places.

These reserves would then be like the food or seed you couldn't eat. Having got them for essential purposes, it would be all right to let people look at them, so long as no damage was done. Whether this looking was as entertainment for tourists, education for children, training for students, or research for scientists, it would all be "cream on top". Furthermore, these reserves would let us know, for the first time, just what natural healthy marine stocks should look like. Some of us think we can tell now, but we don't know this for a fact, it's just a thought, and it could be wishful thinking.

Bill Ballantine