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Seaweed Wealth

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Angela Wanhalla
14 November, 2019

[Image: Girls from Raukōkore Native School hanging up seaweed, 1941  [2, wh.203].

Seaweed Wealth


Seaweed was essential to the war effort.  New Zealand’s commercial seaweed industry has its origins in the Second World War, particularly the research of botanist Lucy Moore, and the important efforts of the Māori families who worked as pickers during the 1940s.


Wartime shortages saw the value of agar rise worldwide. This jelly-like substance is produced from dried agar seaweed (Pterocladia lucida) and assumed national importance when Japan entered the war in December 1941. Until that point, Japan was the largest producer of agar in the world. With access to agar cut off, countries scrambled to locate new supplies and looked to local materials. New Zealand did the same.


Agar has a wide variety of uses. For instance, the jelly was used for the canning of meat products during the war. Because of its medical properties agar was also urgently needed for use in hospitals. Davis Gelatine Co. Ltd, Christchurch, was awarded a license to manufacture agar and by July 1943 production was under way to convert dried seaweed into “the white granulated powder which is used in bacteriological work, pharmaceutical preparations, cosmetics, some milk products, and the meat canning and confectionary industries” [1].


To successfully produce agar required a sufficient supply of the “weed”, meaning that good local sources needed to be located. Little had been known about the distribution or quantity of agar seaweed, but when DSIR botanist Lucy Moore surveyed New Zealand’s coastlines in the early 1940s, she found Northland, the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast regions to be especially abundant. Castlepoint and Cape Turnagain on Manawatū’s east coast, in addition to Taranaki and Kaikōura, were also identified as important sources of agar seaweed [2].


The government encouraged coastal communities in these regions to gather the dark red, fern-like seaweed to support wartime needs. Because the beds were located in areas predominately populated by Māori, near Māori-owned and occupied lands, Māori were targeted as a potential pool of collectors [3]. To promote collecting, in 1942 Moore visited communities in Northland, the East Coast and the Bay of Plenty “in an endeavour to organise the industry for war purposes” [4]. One of the earliest consignments came from Te Whānau-a-Apanui families at Waihau Bay [5].


Local newspapers also supported the government’s campaign to get the seaweed industry going. Readers were encouraged to collect the weed at low tide on the open coast, not from harbours or estuaries, and advised how to wash, dry and package it. School children at local native schools were particularly encouraged to participate [6]. From mid-1942, seaweed collecting was promoted in the Northern Advocate’s children’s column, “The Young Northlander”, and advertised as Northland’s special contribution to the war effort [7]. It published detailed information on how to identify the seaweed, where to look for it, and suggested it be collected “with a dinghy or into an open mesh bag or flax kit” [8].


New Zealand’s wartime seaweed industry relied on Māori knowledge, skill and expertise. As Northern Māori MP Paraire Paikea remarked in 1943: collecting seaweed “is not new to our Maori people. We have always looked upon agar seaweed as a delicacy, and also karengo, which is a very close relative” [9].


Whole communities participated, such as those at Tūpāroa, Whareponga, Tokomaru Bay and Anaura Bay on the East Coast, and in the eastern Bay of Plenty, where “fences draped with drying seaweed are a familiar sight from Omaio to Cape Runaway” [10]. Northland’s Whāngāpē coastline and its communities were entwined with the industry. Some “tend their farms and catch large quantities of fish, while a number are making a living from the collection of agar seaweed” [11]. Elsewhere women took the lead, collecting and harvesting seaweed to make extra money while their husbands were serving overseas, such as at Tokomaru Bay and at Maketū [12].


By mid-1944, it was estimated around 200 families, the majority Māori, supported the agar seaweed industry [13]. They harvested seventy tons of the weed in 1943, and 95 tons the following year, the majority from the Bay of Plenty, Northland and the East Cape [14]. Later in the decade, communities located in the Hawke’s Bay and the southern coastal regions of the eastern North Island became the dominant suppliers.


A profitable industry?

Newspaper stories claimed seaweed collecting had become a profitable activity for coastal communities, especially Māori. As the Northern Advocate reported in 1944, “there is plenty of weed and plenty of money for the gathering” [15].  


Few families or communities could survive on seaweed harvesting alone. For a start it was a seasonal industry, with the main collecting period from December to April. Collecting was straight-forward: the easiest method was to collect drift seaweed from the beach after each tide, and this was prefered as it did not impact on future supplies [16]. Pickers also collected from rocks, by diving into deep water where the agar seaweed was longer and thicker, or from the off-shore reefs, either in a dinghy or by swimming a horse out [17]. The intense work “attached to agar collecting is the cleaning, sorting and baling” and, for best results, “the weed has to be washed and dried at least twice before it is baled” [18]. Bales were then transported to Auckland for assessment and payment, before being on-sold to the agar manufacturer in Christchurch.


Although wartime demand saw the price paid rise from 9 pence to one shilling per pound, families had to collect an enormous amount of seaweed to realise any substantial income. After two years of harvesting, Māori families in the Bay of Plenty, for instance, had collected a total of 53 tons of seaweed valued at £5,771 [19]. An estimated 50 ‘pickers’ collected 16 tons of seaweed valued at £1454 in Northland’s Herekino-Whāngāpē district [20]. Fifiteen families from the Opononi-Ōmāpere district harvested 8785lbs in 1944. This amounted to £439 or, if shared equally, around £29 per family [21]. During the 1943-44 summer period the Ahipara-Reef Point area was opened up for harvesting. Families collected 5467lbs valued at £273 [22].


Although at first glance the renumeration seems reasonably good for a few months work, seasonal participation in the agar industry was rarely profitable. (In comparison, many men worked in industries with a minimum £5/5/- per week [23].)  In fact, Māori collectors appealed to their political representatives to investigate the pricing and seek an increase [24]. But this activity tended to supplement other sources of income, especially in rural areas where it provided families with a secondary source of money that could be funnelled into supporting farming operations. It could also offer an income to tide families over when a farming season was poor [25].


Apart from the extra income, for many Māori community leaders participation in the industry was perceived primarily in terms of its value to the wider war effort and as a vital contribution to national primary production needs [26].


After the war

By the end of the 1940s a substantial local agar industry had developed. Davis Gelatine Co. Ltd remained the sole manufacturer of agar until the 1970s. Today, agar extraction remains central to New Zealand’s small seaweed processing industry. Factories at Ōpōtiki and Masterton rely on collectors from coastal communities in the Far North and the East Coast; a pattern reminiscent of the 1940s [27]. In the mid-1990s, Coast Biologicals operated the sole seaweed processing factory at Ōpōtiki, taking supplies from across the country from an estimated 800 collectors [28]. Few people work full-time as collectors, though. At Ahipara, in Northland, it is mainly Māori who collect and sell the seaweed. Money is not the primary driver: “We can't make a living from this. We are here for land. We are out for our inheritance, not the wealth. This is not a place where you make money. Our land means more to us than anything else” [29].


Did your whānau collect and sell seaweed during the war?  If so, tell us about it.



[1]       AJHR, H-44, 1944; Northern Advocate, 25 February 1944.

[2]       AJHR, H-34, 1944; L. B. Moore, ‘New Zealand Seaweed for Agar-Manufacture’, New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 5 (March 1944), pp.183-209.

[3]       Dougal Ellis, The Wai 420 Marine Issues Report (Wellington, 2002), p.31.

[4]       Gisborne Herald, 17 December 1942.

[5]       Bay of Plenty Beacon, 1 July 1942; AJHR, G-9, 1943.

[6]       New Zealand Herald, 27 June 1942.

[7]       This ‘special section for young people’ was established in 1933: Northern Advocate, 18 October 1933. Its authors were ‘Kupe’ and ‘Raranga’.

[8]       Northern Advocate, 2 June 1942.

[9]       NZPD, Vol. 262, 1943, p.738.

[10]     Gisborne Herald, 17 December 1943.

[11]     Northern Advocate, 19 June 1945.

[12]     Gisborne Herald, 10 February 1943; Gisborne Herald, 12 March 1943; Bay of Plenty Beacon, 7 March 1944.

[13]     Northern Advocate, 11 August 1944.

[14]     AJHR, H-34, 1944; AJHR, H-34, 1945.

[15]     Northern Advocate, 25 February 1944.

[16]     Moore, p.201.

[17]     Moore, p.201.

[18]     Bay of Plenty Beacon, 28 May 1948.

[19]     AJHR, G-9, 1944.

[20]     Northern Advocate, 6 July 1944.

[21]     Northern Advocate, 6 July 1944.

[22]     Northern Advocate, 6 July 1944.

[23]      Evening Post, 3 April 1943, p.4.

[24]     NZPD, Vol. 262, 1943, p.353.

[25]     Gisborne Herald, 22 February 1947.

[26]     Otaki Mail, 16 June 1943; NZPD, Vol. 262, 1943, p.738.

[27]      NZ Mānuka Group, Blog:

[28]     Lindsay Clark, ‘Gardens under the sea’, New Zealand Geographic, Issue 22, April-June 1994:

[29]     Josie Clarke, ‘Seaweed’s the icing on the cake’, New Zealand Herald, 2 January 2002,

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