February 2015

The Nation Reviewed

It’s just not cricket

By John van Tiggelen
Cultures clash over pipis at Venus Bay

On the last Sunday afternoon of 2014, Victorian police officers blocked the one long road out of Venus Bay, a hodgepodge surfside community in South Gippsland of about 600 permanent residents.

Venus Bay’s most notorious local, Kath Pettingill, the septuagenarian crime matriarch who inspired Jacki Weaver’s character in the film Animal Kingdom, was spotted smoking outside the general store, watching the traffic crawl by. A few kilometres down the road, as part of a joint operation with Fisheries Victoria called Operation Sonic, police inspected the lot. Almost every car was a family affair – mums and dads, nans and kids, making the two-hour journey back to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs after a day at the beach – and almost every boot revealed an esky loaded with shellfish.

Venus Bay’s beach has long been popular within certain circles for its profusion of Plebidonax deltoides, or the common pipi, the small butterfly clam of dishes like spaghetti vongole. For years, no one took much notice of the summer influx of harvesters. Pipis live hand-deep in sand around the mid-tide mark, but are most readily found with the feet, by wiggling the heels from side to side as the waves wash away the sand. In the ’70s, it was small groups of Italians and Greeks doing the “pipi twist”. In the ’80s, it was Vietnamese Australians, in bigger numbers, and sometimes using purpose-made slotted trowels. Still the locals weren’t too bothered. The beach was long, after all, and they never cared much for pipis, other than for bait.

But then, about a dozen years ago, the Chinese joined the party. Now every day of the summer break, and especially on Christmas Day, hundreds of Melbourne families of Asian descent, as well as carloads of students, stream into the township and, according to the Venus Bay Pipi Protection Group’s Facebook page, “interfere with holiday makers wanting to swim and enjoy the surf”. An online petition claims the beach is being “swamped by harvesters” and calls for a summer ban.

Suddenly locals, it seems, adore their pipis – they claim the bivalves are being overexploited, “plundered”, even “raped”. Someone daubed “Piss Off Pipi Stealers” on a toilet block, and a beach protest by some 70 baysiders last year ended in livid confrontation. Such has been the outcry, you’d think that pipis held the beach together. (This argument was actually put to me more than once.) Two days before Christmas, the local weekly paper, the Star, linked the hordes of harvesters to the drowning of a 20-year-old man because the state of the beach, as the surf lifesaving club’s deputy president put it, meant would-be rescuers were “unable to get the [club’s] four-wheel drive out of second gear”.

Commercial harvesting has seen pipi stocks crash in numerous locales in south-eastern Australia, but fisheries scientists insist that recreational harvesting is sustainable. The rules are strict, even onerous: every family must have a fishing licence, digging tools may no longer be used, and the Venus Bay catch limit is 2 litres of pipis per person (it’s 5 litres on all other Victorian beaches). To be sure, the pipis are smaller within a kilometre or two of the main public access points, because the big ones have been taken. But elsewhere along the beach, including its entire 12-kilometre eastern half, the shellfish are doing just fine.

Over a cup of tea at her home among the banksias, Kerrie Auchettl, the woman behind the online petition, says point blank that the government ecologists are lying, and that the bay’s natural balance is teetering. But Auchettl concedes her chief concern isn’t a threatened shellfish. It’s a threatened community. “We can’t cope,” she says. “The infrastructure can’t cope. There aren’t nearly enough parking lots, toilets or bins.” And even if there were, she says, the people of Venus Bay want their beach back. They feel invaded, overwhelmed, outnumbered and, perhaps worse, they feel ignored. “We know Fisheries is sick of us. We know Parks [Victoria] have had a gutful. No one wants to listen.”

Auchettl speaks in hushed tones, as if in fear of her argument being shot down. “It’s not that they’re Asian,” she stresses. “It’s the scale of it. We like being a sleepy hollow, and we’re not one any more. People need a break. They’re tired, annoyed, stressed.”

She says it makes her sick to know some people think she’s racist. Her website includes a disclaimer: “Our community acknowledges that pipi harvesting is culturally acceptable.” Yet the vehemence of protesters takes some explaining. A video on Auchettl’s website depicts her driving to the beach on 28 December 2013, squeezing between long lines of parked cars to finally crest the last dune. “Oh my god, look at that down there,” she observes, as the camera zooms in on throngs of foragers below. “That is horrendous.”

Peter Prysten, an architect who retired to his Venus Bay holiday house three years ago, experiences a similar visceral reaction each summer. “What really irritates me,” he says, “is the singular purpose with which these people come here.” Prysten insists that some migrant groups are culturally inclined to deplete natural resources. “That’s reflected in the amount of rubbish left behind here,” he says. “Of course, I could be really pragmatic about it. I could say, ‘Let the pipis disappear. Let nature piss these people off.’ But the way they go about it still offends me.”

As it happens, Prysten collected a bucket of pipis himself that morning, before the multitudes arrived. He likes to cook them the Italian way, in a garlicky broth of chopped tomato and white wine, and tossed through pasta.

I ask if he knows how “these people” cook them.

He shrugs. “No idea,” he says.

The next day, Christmas Day, is a relatively cool one, but by lunchtime there are hundreds of people churning up the tidal zone. Hardly anyone is in bathers, and shrieks of laughter erupt every time a big wave rolls in. I meet a Korean student and three friends returning to their car. They’ve got half a litre of pipis between them, tops.

“They are small,” I say.

“Yes,” she says, laughing. “Too many Chinese back there.”

A ranger, Dave, pulls up on his quad bike. He’s been flat out inspecting licences, but he says he enjoys the vibe; it’s like a festival out there. He’s had to tell a few people off for using tools, but he notes that compliance with fishing regulations is relatively high. (Operation Sonic came to the same conclusion: of 1300 harvesters stopped, nine in ten had licences and stuck to legal catch limits.) As for litter, he explains, what with the wind, the numbers of people and the overflowing bins, “there’s nothing cultural about it”.

A Vietnamese mother of two young children tells me she has been coming here for 25 years, since she was a toddler. She’s collecting the pipis to stir-fry, as is everyone else I speak to. The base ingredients include spring onions and chilli paste, often XO sauce, sometimes ginger and always “a little sugar”.

“The pipis create their own broth,” says another forager. “We eat them with Chinese doughnuts [aka fried breadsticks] for dipping.”

A Chinese Australian asks how I cook them.

Belgian style, I tell her: fry some leek, pour in some beer, bring to the boil, add the pipis and cover the pan till they open. Serve with mayonnaise.

She looks at me, nonplussed. Then she smiles politely and says, “Really? Maybe I could learn from that.”

Days later, I call Lisa Hatfield, a PhD student in anthropology at La Trobe University, who has spent several summers studying Venus Bay’s antipathy to the pipi tourists. She tells me how one day, as a conversation-starter, she offered foragers some pipis from a bucketful she’d collected herself. There were no takers. “It’s actually not about the haul of pipis for these families,” she says. “It’s about having a social day out. Collecting pipis is relaxing, it’s fun.”

Yet many Venus Baysiders – not all, Hatfield emphasises – “seem to feel the harvesting is just morally wrong in some way. They talk of plunder, of pillage. It perplexes them that what the harvesters are doing is legal, because to them it just doesn’t look legal.”

She cuts to her thesis. “To Australians, the beach is a sacred kind of place. It’s a space for recreation: for swimming, surfing, walking the dog, playing beach cricket. But these people don’t come dressed for the beach. They’re dressed neatly, they look industrious. I have a feeling that this is key to why people find pipi harvesting so offensive: to Australians, it looks like work.”

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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