Pipis are a thing of childhood memories for many southeastern Australians. Beach holidays, camping and the gritty crunch of sand as you chewed them. For me the memories are also of bodysurfing; feet shuffling around in shoulder high water feeling the hardness of the shell underfoot and diving down to scrabble around for it, then putting it away for later if it survived in pockets or speedos through any subsequent surf dumpings. That and the ‘pipi shuffle’; doing what is best described as ‘the twist’ in shallow water, hunting with your toes, usually in company and always in competition with them. It was only in later years that I spent more time on bigger flatter more northern beaches where pipis give themselves away with little lumps in the sand.
Such memories will be less commonly formed these days, with more people and far fewer pipis to be encountered. Blue green algal blooms have closed fisheries here and there and scared people away from eating them in some places, while increased market prices have led to stock depletions by commercial harvesters (sometimes through a black market) in others. In New South Wales we have a Department of Primary Industries that would usually prefer to restrict recreational harvesters than commercial operators in pretty much all fisheries, and have for a long time prohibited collecting them for anything but bait, unless by commercial harvesters. But now even the pros have been shut down with a closure until June 2012. The government custodianship of the resource has been woeful, but I will reserve my ire for them for if I ever post on fishing licenses or abalone.
It has been 2 years since I last got into some pipis and I have no qualms in admitting knowing that it was illegal. The regulations state that you can harvest up to 50, but only for bait, and only on the beach you gathered them on. The ones I ate were far fewer than 50 and I ate them, if not on the beach, then a pipis throw from it. I was up on the north coast for a job where I had to fly up, stay the night before an early survey the next morning followed by a flight home. The trip up left me just enough time to drop some extra rental car money on a 4WD (made up for by camping instead of a grim Grafton motel) and head straight to a beach stopping only for a bottle of white wine and some bread. I checked the tide chart, I knew exactly where I was going right down to the tent spot and had a firm plan. It all fell together with the ease and predictability of drive-through fast food.
On the beach, the tide was low, the weather right for the sand to do what it needs to do for guaranteed success; which is to get dry enough to lump and crack above the buried molluscs, but not so dry that that lump can or settle blow away. So I started to wind down, and slowly drive with eyes peeled. Four-wheel driving is usually more of a utilitarian than a recreational thing for me, and I might at other times be quick to condemn those who like to guzzle gas over fragile environments for the hell of it, but there is undoubtedly something truly joyful about driving along a huge empty beach. And then the lumps start to appear – the size of a fifty cent piece, unmistakable and infallible. Each with a pipi lying a few centimetres below in wait.
I gathered two dozen, turned around and rolled happily back to camp. In lieu of a bucket, a soda water bottle with the lid cut off allowed a brief attempt at letting the pipis purge some sand, but mostly I was just ready for some crunch. It was a National Parks camp with a fee paid, fitted out with gas barbecues, so there was no more to do than pop up the tent, push the red button, chuck on the pipis and open the wine. The pipis, steaming away on the hot plate, were obliging enough to open themselves.
In my view the pipi fishery is something over which Native Title will eventually be found to exist for most of the North Coast. It occurs on land without other extinguishing title and represents a traditional activity that is continuous among people with clear traditional ownership. If the Yaegl people choose to ban me from gathering pipis in their country I will, albeit with some sadness, desist. Until then I am sure I will break the law again. In fact I am really looking forward to it, no apologies.