WHETHER it is an environmental massacre by pipi pirates or natural variation, Port Stephens' pipi population is in peril.
The State Government has been urged to step in and save the species after the recent refusal of funding for a reseeding program backed by a NSW Department of Fisheries senior researcher.
For the past decade an average of 120 tonnes of pipis were collected from Stockton Beach yearly, but catches fell to just over 18 tonnes in 2007, according to Newcastle Fisherman's Co-operative figures.
Overharvesting, natural variation or virus was given as possible reasons for the decline, shellfish research expert Dr Wayne O'Connor said.
Increased traffic on the beach could also play a part, he said.
Dr O'Connor believes it would be possible to rapidly develop production technology, similar to the successful oyster spat breeding program instigated at Port Stephens Fisheries Centre at Taylors Beach, to arrest the decline.
Port Stephens fisherman and Seafood Quality Assurance Association Hunter co-ordinator, Mark Phelps said immediate funding of about $170,000 was crucial.
The proposed pipi spat breeding program needed comparatively little logistics, but because of an inability to show authoritative management, it did not qualify for a grant from Fishing, Research and Development Centre, he said.
NSW Department of Fisheries while supportive, would not yet step up despite Dr Wayne O'Connor's vocal support of the merits of reseeding.
"We've been screaming out for management since we started but have had no support from fisheries," he said.
Sydney-based 'pipi tours' of the beach led to a ban on pipi collection for anything other than bait in 1998.
Recreational fishermen have long blamed ethnic groups who for years gathered Stockton Beach's pipis, which are regarded as delicacies and commonly served in Sydney's Asian restaurants.
Port Stephens commercial pipi collectors, of which only four remain today, had worked to a voluntary code of conduct by keeping to size limits and setting a reserve price, Mr Phelps said.
For those who are in it for the long haul, sustaining the stocks for the future was paramount, he said.