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These Kaimoana Queens are catching their own kai

Meet the new wave of Kiwi hunters and gatherers feeding their whānau
Kaimoana Queens founder Karis Vesey in front of the waterPhotos: Jess Burges

When Karis Vesey ran the first Kaimoana Queens workshop in 2022 for a group of 16 women, teaching them to fish, gather and dive for their own seafood, most participants were her friends or family.

Since then, it’s taken off faster than she ever imagined. There were 74 women at the last event in the Hokianga and tickets sold out in just nine minutes.

It’s proved so popular, wāhine all around New Zealand are asking for workshops in their region. People living in Australia are even planning to fly over to attend.

“At the first wānanga [workshop], it was the first-ever time diving for most. I remember saying before we went in, ‘Don’t scream because I’ll think there’s a shark,’” recalls Karis. “Next thing, I heard all this yelling and someone had just grabbed their first kina and was absolutely ecstatic.

“These women have eaten kaimoana [seafood] their whole lives, but never been the ones to gather it. That was always their brothers, dads and husbands’ job. It was amazing to see how powerful they felt knowing they can feed their tamariki [children] and hapū [tribe] with their own hands.”

The Kaimoana Queens in the water and on the beach
Gathering and fishing in the Hokianga.

The inaugural group of women were so moved by the experience. Most of them are now part of the 23-strong team of volunteers facilitating the Kaimoana Queens online group and face-to-face gatherings.

“We have such an amazingly skilled crew,” enthuses Karis. “They’re all rangatira [leaders] and experts in their own fields, leading busy lives as māmā and working. Still, they volunteer their time to Kaimoana Queens. There is no task too big or too small and I admire them all so much.”

While Karis is adamant the credit belongs to the group as a whole, she says her childhood spent in nature, learning about self-sufficiency, bush craft and caring for the sea from her father and brothers made her want to share this knowledge with more women.

And so in 2021, Karis and her sister Amy-Lu Barratt founded Kaimoana Queens. It was initially a supportive online Facebook group for women to connect and learn together.

Now after hosting four in-person workshops thanks to funding and support from Toi Tangata, Karis and the team can barely keep up with demand.

A group photo of the Kaimona Queens
The Kaimona Queens: Back row (from left): Maraea Toleafoa, Manaia Andrews, Karis, Brianna Patino, Sally Kira-Bristow, Ruby-Lee Barnes, Kōwhai Allen, Trina Naera, Amy Bristow, Ashley Andrews and Pettania Toleafoa. Front row (from left): Manawaroa Kapa-Leaf, Billie-Jean Andrews, Remi Gielen, Amaia Cherry, Hayley Taotua, Tuimana Taotua, Ngahuru Hau Wikaira and Thomas Toleafoa.

“Wāhine learn how to use maramataka [Māori lunar calendar], set fishing nets, eel traps, water safety, gather kaimoana, to read the conditions and most recently butchery,” explains Karis. “Unexpectedly, there’s also so much healing that happens in this space.

“We’re trying to reclaim the ways of our tūpuna [ancestors] and really help whānau towards kai sovereignty.”

From a grandmother in her seventies catching her first fish, to providing all of the kaimoana free for a loved one’s tangihanga [Māori funeral] or seeing women arrive nervous and shy only to leave the weekend workshop confident and able to provide food during tough financial times, the impact is clear.

The dream is to have as many wāhine as possible knowing how to gather kai and kaimoana safely and sustainably. Then they can become kaitiaki [guardians and caretakers] of the ocean.

Karis also loves showing people how to get creative using less common seafood, like molluscs and seaweed.

“Limpets are one of my favourites, especially in a good udon noodle dish,” tells Karis. “They’re easy to gather and process with kids, and taste like mini paua. At the last wānanga, one wahine was demonstrating cooking with neptune’s necklace seaweed. We had people buzzing about how much it tastes like popcorn. You have to bake it, though, and always double check that you’re gathering the right things.”

A full plate of seafood
The results are delicious!

While the Hokianga-based crew is deeply committed to taking care of Aotearoa’s oceans, they’ve also answered the call to help internationally.

Next month, the Kaimoana Queens and their collaborative partner Native Sports Performance, led by former Black Fern Rawinia Everitt, will head to Rarotonga to help remove the pest taramea, which is destroying coral reefs.

“We run programmes together for the betterment of our people,” says Karis. She adds that several rangatahi [teens] who have been with Kaimoana Queens from the beginning will join them.

“Being underwater and seeing five of them just taught how to duck dive, going down and grabbing kina. There’s no words to describe how amazing that is,” she smiles.

“It feels like looking into the future and the future of our mokopuna [grandchildren] looks bright.

“It’s really developed into so much more than we ever thought it would. It’s a real honour and a privilege for our crew to facilitate such powerful wānanga through Kaimoana Queens Charitable Trust.”

To find out more or join the Kaimoana Queens group, visit facebook.com/groups/wahinefishers

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