Fears are mounting that shellfish gathering at Auckland beaches may become a distant memory.
High numbers of visitors to Shakespear Regional Park have seen cockle beds at neighbouring Okoromai Bay decimated, nearby residents say.
"On New Year's Day the car park at Shakespear Park was full and overflowing on to the lead-in road accessing the beach at Okoromai Bay," Barry Luckman of Army Bay says.
"At low tide one could count in excess of 100 shellfish gatherers on the mudflats. These were coming and going as they filled buckets and bags of shellfish. This is a daily occurrence up here over the holiday period," he says.
Mr Luckman says he's been visiting Okoromai Bay for more than 30 years before moving to Army Bay five years ago and has seen the bay's sea life disappear over the years.
He fears the cockle beds will be gone and wants the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to impose a ban or rahui on the beds to allow the cockles to recover.
He urges residents to join forces to protect shore life around the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, facing increasing development pressure.
"If left to take its present course, our wonderful waters are destined to become a marine desert," he says.
Concerned residents can contact him on 09 424 1669.
While shellfish beds on the rest of the peninsula are left to their own devices, Okoromai Bay is one of 12 beaches from Northland to the Bay of Plenty regularly surveyed to keep track of cockle and pipi numbers.
Surveys have taken place every few years since 1996 and the last results in 2010 showed the population stable at around 30 million shellfish with about 36 per cent of the population 30mm or more in size - the ideal harvestable size. These big adults are also the breeding stock.
MPI says Okoromai was surveyed in early 2012. Preliminary results suggest a population of around 28 million and no significant decline in cockle size. It also shows no decline in population size so it will not be intervening, the ministry says.
But Mr Luckman disputes that, saying remaining stock has been reduced to that of marble size. A lower limit of 50 cockles a person in Auckland daily applies rather than 150 elsewhere, but there is no minimum size restriction.
Many of the 60 gatherers on the late afternoon the Rodney Times was at Okoromai Bay clearly had far more than 50 cockles per person.
A ban applies on cockle gathering in beds further north in the Whangateau Harbour after they were hammered by disease in 2008. This saw about 60 per cent of the cockles die, including 85 per cent of shellfish over 30mm.
An initial three-year ban was extended to six years to allow the remaining shellfish to grow. It will be reviewed before the ban is due to be lifted in March 2016.
A voluntary ban was initially applied after residents became frustrated with the time it took for the then Ministry of Fisheries to apply the harvesting restriction.
Shellfish are considered ecosystem engineers with their filter feeding helping to keep water clean as well as being important for seashore ecosystems.
The Whangateau Harbour has some of the cleanest water in the region partly because of the cockle beds.
Shellfish gathering has become difficult in other areas too.
Mussels could once be easily gathered at O'Neill Bay north of Bethells Beach but are now only available to divers.
Waipu Cove visitors could just a few years ago easily get a feed of tuatua along the beach towards Waipu township, but the shellfish have either moved elsewhere or been cleaned out.
Shellfish are also harder to find in quantity at the Mangawhai estuary, and the Orewa estuary has health warnings in place for any shellfish there.
A ban applied for years to seasonal scallop gathering in the Kaipara Harbour but was lifted once numbers increased. Popular scallop areas there include Shelly Beach and Tinopai.