1953 Pipis harvested commercially in NSW

Mr Jim Stewart dredging for pipis on Seven Mile Beach, Gerringong. Australian Women's Weekly 11-3-53

Pipis have many other names. They’ve been called surf clams, Goolwa cockles and even vongole, while First Nations people know them as kuti, ugari or eugarie. Calling them pipis is, in fact, something of a misnomer as the word is a  Maori one, used in New Zealand to refer to a completely different species. In Australia, the small shellfish scientifically known as Plebidonax deltoides are found in the intertidal zone of south-eastern beaches from southern Queensland to South Australia.

First Nations people have been feasting on shellfish for millennia The evidence lies in middens around the coast with some, including those in South Australia’s Coorong region, consisting almost entirely of pipis. White settlers soon discovered pipis but seemed reluctant to eat them. Why they relegated the pipi to the role of bait is a mystery, as there was a long tradition of cockle harvesting in Britain, especially in Wales where cockles and laver bread (a kind of seaweed) were a traditional part of a Welsh breakfast.

The traditional way to gather pipis is to do the “pipi shuffle” as water covers your feet and ankles, feeling for the shellfish beneath the sand with your toes. For decades, there were no restrictions on recreational harvesting and little consideration of the sustainability of the species. Then, in 1953, a shrewd American saw a way to turn a profit from the fishery. An article in the Australian Women’s Weekly described his enterprise which involved the rather brutal method of towing a dredge behind a tractor along the beach near Gerringong in southern New South Wales. Jim Stewart thought the pipis closely resembled the clams used for chowder in his native Florida and the article included recipes for Clam Chowder and Devilled Clams.

Stewart continued with his mechanical harvesting through the 1950s but his method was unsustainable and caused irrevocable damage to the pipi beds, disturbing or smashing what he didn’t carry away. He failed to change attitudes to pipis. Australians continued to view them mainly as bait although, as our cultural mix became more diverse, the shellfish began sneaking onto the dinner table. Governments, too, began to see value in the fishery, introducing quotas, setting size limits and restricting the harvesting season. Today,  recreational pipi harvesters in all states are subject to bag limits while private gathering of pipis for human consumption is prohibited in New South Wales because of potential algae contamination.

Goolwa pipis. Image: SA Government – We Are SA

There are commercial harvesters in Victoria and New South Wales, but the most sophisticated operation is in the Coorong region of South Australia. Goolwa PipiCo was established in 2014, using local crews to hand-harvest the pipis from the area’s beaches. Goolwa, located at the mouth of the Murray River, was once Australia’s most important river port. Paddle steamers delivered cargo from as far away as Queensland, to be loaded onto horse-drawn railway carriages for transport to the docks at Port Elliot and, later, Victor Harbour. The train became known as the “cockle train”, as colonists travelled to Goolwa’s beaches to dig for the shellfish.

In 2019, Goolwa PipiCo formed a joint venture with KutiCo, wholly owned by the local Ngarrindjeri people. The company’s focus is human consumption and it has more than 50 per cent of the Australian market. Its pipis are sold alive and loose as well as blast frozen, smoked, cooked in a bag or in modified atmosphere packaging (shrink wrapped). Another initiative of the partnership is the Kuti Shack, a beachside restaurant starring the locally-caught shellfish as well as other produce from the  Fleurieu Peninsula.

The Goolwa cockle has come a long way from its lowly status as fish bait, gracing restaurant tables around the country and now targeting export markets in Asia and Europe.

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