Mysterious mass shellfish death near Whangarei

The Ngunguru Sandspit looking south-west from a lookout point near Wellingtons Bay on the Tutukaka Coast.
Nick Unkovich

The Ngunguru Sandspit looking south-west from a lookout point near Wellingtons Bay on the Tutukaka Coast.

A horrible stench set off an investigation into a mysterious mass shellfish death at Ngunguru Sandspit in Northland.

Aaron Franklin, who was visiting his parents in the area, alerted authorities to the deaths on Thursday May 21. The engineer estimates there were well over a million dead cockles, tuatua and pipi on the seaward beach and near the mouth of the estuary, with more on the seabed.

Dead cockles like these have turned up in large numbers in the Ngunguru Sandspit area.
Delwyn Dickey

Dead cockles like these have turned up in large numbers in the Ngunguru Sandspit area.

Franklin returned to the area the next day where representatives from Northland Regional Council were gathering samples. He says the area "reeked of rotting shellfish".

Northland District Health Board is recommending people do not take or consume shellfish from the area until the cause of the deaths is known. Signs advising the public of the incident went up on May 27.

Franklin, a member of the grassroots Arctic Methane Emergency Group, says increased levels of carbon dioxide and decreased levels of oxygen in the ocean are one possible cause of the deaths.

He says incidences of hypoxia - where oxygen levels drop so low that sealife is killed on mass in a short period of time - have increased rapidly. Ocean currents can cause carbon-dioxide rich water to move to areas with high concentrations of shellfish, where they die as they cannot expel carbon dioxide from their shells, Franklin says.

Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is leading the investigation into what happened at Ngunguru and says it is testing samples to try and rule out any biosecurity risk. In a statement they say that "investigations like this can require complex testing and it is currently too early to say how long this might take".

A Northland Regional Council spokesman says there is no evidence to back up any particular theory at this stage.

"Our guys have to be bound by the science," he says.

Ad Feedback

MPI says it encourages the reporting of unusual numbers of dead or dying animals – including fish and shellfish – to the Exotic Disease and Pest hotline on 0800 80 99 66.

Anyone with health concerns relating to shellfish on Northland beaches should contact the Northland DHB's on-call health protection officer on 430 4100.

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback