It’s late afternoon in the Far North of New Zealand, with a king low tide, steady offshore winds and dying swell. Conditions are ideal for paua poaching. Fishery officers from Kaitaia are hitting the coast for a bust organised several weeks ago. As their 4WD truck winds through the coastal town of Ahipara towards Shipwreck Bay, at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach, a red three-wheeled motorbike suddenly pulls into view.
The driver immediately dips his head to the handlebars and punches the accelerator.
Chris, one of two fishery officers in the truck, curses sharply as he recognises the driver speeding past his window. Snatching a radio, he tells two officers in a following truck that the rider is coming their way. “He’s the worst person we could have seen right now,” Chris says. “We suspect he’s a courier for the main poachers out here. If he gets home, we can’t touch him.”
The paua patrol could be over before it’s started—the courier will send a message to poachers on the coastline that fishery officers are heading their way. Sack-loads of paua will be thrown back in the sea or stashed in rockpools, to be collected when the coast is clear.
This game of cat-and-mouse between fishery officers and paua poachers is being played out up and down the New Zealand coastline. Week in week out, officers are trying to get intelligence on poachers’ movements and tactics, while the poachers become experts at evading capture. It is an organised criminal world in which officers rely heavily on informants and undercover agents. While many poachers are caught through road blocks and beach patrols, the middlemen and ringleaders often remain unknown and at large.
This is no longer a question of a few guys catching too many paua for a feed. The motives can be more sinister—there is evidence of poachers trading their catch for methamphetamine, known as ‘pure’ or ‘P’.
Supply and demand
New Zealand’s three species of paua, known abroad as abalone, are found in shallow, rocky areas usually just below the intertidal zone. The only legal way to catch them is by free-diving, although poachers often use scuba equipment, or wait for a spring low tide to pluck them off the rocks when they dry. A blunt instrument is often used to prise their muscular foot from rocks, and although there is a market for their decorative shells, it is for this rich-tasting foot that paua are poached.
The appetite for paua surpasses supply in New Zealand, says Ross Thurston, the Ministry for Primary Industries’ regional compliance manager for the central region. Thurston was heavily involved in Operation Paid, New Zealand’s most recent large-scale paua operation.
Generally speaking, blackmarket paua comes from the top of the South Island and bottom of the North Island. Hauls are then pulled together by middlemen who transport it to Auckland. As it moves north, the product passes through many different hands, each party forming a link in the chain, says Thurston.
“It’s like an hourglass,” he explains. “It starts off wide with the catch and then it goes into a choke point as it works up the country, then it spreads out again at the destination point. The bottom doesn’t know who the top is. It’s like any illicit chain. It’s a criminal enterprise and they’ve got no respect for the community.”
Gauging the amount of paua being taken illegally is almost impossible, says Keith Ingram, editor of Professional Skipper Magazine and an honorary fishery officer in East Auckland. “We do catch a lot, but I would suggest we’re lucky if we’re catching 40 to 50 per cent of it around the country.”
Ingram, who was part of Operation Paid, says that if the results of the operation are anything to go by, the principal offenders are often Māori and associated with gangs. Those in the Wellington region are predominantly Pacific Islanders. The ringleaders at the top are usually Auckland-based Asian businessmen and restaurateurs.
Until about five years ago, most of our stolen paua fed an Asian black market overseas. It was smuggled out in dried or canned form through the post, or with Asian tourists in their luggage.
A law change in 2009 restricted the amount of paua an individual could take out of the country from 10 kilograms to 2.5 kilograms (about 20 paua). The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States also led to tighter border security. “The change in law and increased training and vigilance seem to have stopped that course,” says Thurston. Now the product stays here.
“We would tend to believe that most is for the domestic market, and when you have a high Asian population, there’s a natural attraction for it to be moved around here,” he says.
Paua meat is an aphrodisiac in Asian tradition and is also believed to delay senility and increase fertility. About 95 per cent of the total annual commercial catch in New Zealand, 950 tonnes, is exported to Asian countries, says Jeremy Cooper, chief executive officer of the Paua Industry Council. “It’s a status symbol to Asians. If your daughter’s getting married and you’ve got cases of abalone at the wedding then you’re considered a really wealthy person.”
Although the legal domestic price of abalone meat has dropped in the past few years to about $120 a kilogram, it is still too expensive for most would-be buyers in New Zealand. So a local black market, born mostly out of Auckland’s large Asian community, has emerged to meet this demand. Cooper believes 200 to 300 tonnes of paua is now being illegally harvested in New Zealand each year, about 20 to 30 per cent of the annual legal take. Others think it could be higher.
Paua is easy to catch, easy to trade and fetches a decent price for little work. For the poachers, a kilogram of shucked paua fetches between $12 and $20. As it is sold on to various parties, usually including gangs, the product is marked up. Middlemen transport it to the top, where it is eventually sold through the restaurant back door at a price of up to $90 per kilogram, $30 less than the rate for legal product.
“It arrives in Auckland in bags and disappears into private homes, into freezers and garages, and from there it will go into a restaurant one bag at a time,” says Ingram.
“They [restaurant owners] won’t pay any more than $90 for it because you buy aquaculture, farmed paua now for $90 a kilo retail.”
Restaurateur Steve Logan, of television series Hunger for the Wild, proudly serves paua at his Wellington restaurant, Logan Brown. He buys wild paua, shucked and gutted, from local commercial distributor Coq au Vin for $112 per kilogram, plus GST.
“We serve it in ravioli using just a small amount of paua meat, otherwise the selling price would be way too high for the market,” says Logan.
He says he has never been offered blackmarket paua, but is suspicious when he sees the delicacy on the menu in other restaurants at a cheap price.
“We are so fortunate to have access to paua, but it’s such a shame so many greedy slimebags are taking too many, and undersized, and then reselling them. The fines should be doubled and the perpetrators publicly humiliated because they are stealing our kids’ futures and our way of life.”
The drug link
Patau Tepania is a commercial fisherman in Ahipara, where around 90 per cent of the population is Māori. He believes in living off the land and values his boat and pig dogs highly. An assortment of masks, snorkels and fins lie scattered around his front door. A large chiller sits by the driveway, in which Tepania builds up a mass of fish before his weekly trip to the Auckland Fish Market.
He speaks about how two cultures exist in the community; the old way and the new way. He says the traditional Māori way was to be guardians of the sea, but the allure of easy money through poaching is undermining that culture. Paua theft is rife on this beautiful coastline, and sometimes drugs are involved.
“The young fellas have been around there diving to get their P. They’re swapping paua for P with the local cooks up here. The police are doing as much as they can. We’ve all grown up together here and I’m watching their kids growing up doing that. And I can only think of their kids’ futures. It’s just going to be a snowball effect. It’s just going to carry on and on.”
South Africa’s abalone stocks have been decimated since the mid-1990s, largely due to bartering of the shellfish for chemical ingredients to produce illicit drugs such as methamphetamine. Investigators have discovered that Chinese crime syndicates have smuggled in the ingredients and traded them with local gangs for abalone, sometimes paying off police officers and customs officials to smuggle the seafood out to Asia.
Although nowhere near the scale of South Africa’s problem yet, paua theft and drugs are closely linked in the Wellington region, Northland and possibly in other areas, says Keith Ingram.
“The poaching is being driven by P. Wherever paua is being stolen, drugs are very closely associated,” he says. “The penalties for stealing high-value paua to feed P habits are far less than for knocking over a service station or a dairy.
“You’re a bit of a P-addict and you’re into the drugs. The gangs will say, ‘Go and steal some paua, boy. We’ll pay you 20 bucks a kilo for it, but we’ll pay you in meth.’ And you can then on-sell that meth so you become a stealer of paua, dealer in meth.
“Or you’re using it for your own consumption. Then, you’re consuming all the profit out of your supply so you’ve got to steal paua to get more money to get the supply.”
Though Ingram clearly has growing concerns around the drug connection, Ross Thurston believes the link between meth and paua in New Zealand remains at a low level, but needs to be taken seriously. “It’s certainly on the surface. We’d be foolish to say it’s not happening.”
He knows poachers who have started smoking P and then struggled to keep diving.
“To be a paua diver you’ve got to be in reasonable nick, and so we have seen some paua divers become meth users and drift off the scene. We’ve seen a couple who have really wasted away, from being pretty physically fit divers to being skeletal.”
Thurston says although the confidential phone line 0800 4 POACHER is a great tool, many people are too scared to talk about someone they know stealing paua to fund a habit.
“If they become aware of or alarmed about the link between meth and paua, they might be cautious about even giving us a ring.”
The Poaching Highway
On Tauroa Point, the barb at the southern end of the great hook of Ninety Mile Beach, three of the fishery officers have tucked themselves back in the dunes out of sight. Their equipment includes metal paua-measuring instruments, notepads, handcuffs, steel-cap boots and kevlar vests. A bag of almonds is being passed around. The fourth officer, Harvey, is hunkered down in the dunes 50 metres away. Two binocular eyes peek out from the thick sand tussock. Harvey is the spotter, looking for trucks returning from around the point. After some time, he lets out a low whistle and calls out: “One’s on the move!”
The hum of an approaching truck grows louder and the officers step out from the dunes at the last minute, waving the driver to a stop. They search the ute. There is a boot-load of diving gear dripping with salt water but not a single paua. The courier they spotted earlier has done his work. Other trucks do u-turns in the distance as soon as they spot the fishery officers. They return later with car-boots agonisingly void of paua. It’s the game of cat-and-mouse.
Over the next hour, the rising tide forces divers from the water and a flurry of 4WD trucks rumble back from around the headland. A truck approaches, leaning noticeably to one side. The driver looks like he may outweigh the whole All Black front row. A huge arm waves a white piece of paper out his window—a customary fishing permit.
Customary fishing rights enable Māori to manage their non-commercial fishing independently. Iwi and hapu representatives issue permits for the collection of seafood, usually for hui or tangi. Some areas such as Ahipara are still under a temporary system, Regulation 50 of the Fisheries (Amateur Fishing) Regulations 2013. This allows Māori less control over their fishery area but they can still gain written authorisation from iwi leaders to gather kaimoana for special events.
Some believe the customary and Regulation 50 permits are being abused. They say certain issuers give out permits too freely, irrespective of a gathering’s cultural legitimacy.
A South Island diver, who has worked for more than 20 years in the commercial paua industry and asked not to be named, believes one of the biggest threats to paua stocks in New Zealand is abuse of customary fishing rights.
“Customary gathering is a licence to take whatever you like and the Ministry for Primary Industries are really, really slack at checking and policing customary permits because, basically, they don’t want to be seen as Māori-bashing and they’re intimidated by the people who are doing it. I’m not anti-customary fishing but this is outrageous,” he says. “I know one guy who was coming home from Nelson every week and we’d see him out there. He’d come over for a yarn; he didn’t give a damn. And one day he had a truck full. He had 700 kilos of kinas, 10 bins of paua and three bins of crayfish. And that was supposedly for a hui in the North Island somewhere. And he told me he’d taken 20 to 25 tonnes of kina out of one area in Marlborough that year. And the total commercial catch is 140 tonnes. That was a huge amount that was completely unreported and un-policed. And he’s not the only one.”
Ingram believes some progress is being made in the area of customary fishing rights. “It’s starting to get cleaned up. We’re starting to find out how much paua is being taken under the permits, although in some cases it is quite high.”
Cooper also believes the situation is improving. “Iwi are now being far more particular about the issuing of permits, with the additional requirement of reporting catch back to them. They’re getting a lot stricter.”
Patau Tepania is one of three authorised iwi representatives in Ahipara who can issue permits. He says he and the other two meet and talk about how they authorise seafood gathering. But the process of who issues what, how much they allow people to take and where they can do so is something still being worked out in the Far North and other parts of the country. These matters are complex and take time, says Tepania.
For example, Northland’s five iwi cannot set their respective coastline boundaries until they have first agreed on land boundaries.
In Ahipara, a committee has been formed to stop poaching in the area and protect the dwindling resource. “We were brought together because there were whānau who had issues regarding the depletion of paua around our coast,” says Tepania. The Ahipara Komiti Takutaimoana has placed a rāhui—a total ban on fishing—on a 1.6-kilometre stretch of coastline around Tauroa Point.
Tepania hopes the action taken by his Te Rarawa iwi will inspire other tribes around the country. Since the rāhui was put in place, poaching in the area has mostly stopped and paua stocks have bounced back, he says.
Another step the komiti has taken is to reseed the coastline with 20,000 juvenile paua, the size of a fingernail, purchased from an aquaculture company. Most locals are committed to seeing poaching stamped out and paua stocks revived, says Tepania. But not all such poaching is for commercial gain.
While talking outside a seaside takeaway bar in Northland, a Māori commercial fisherman admits to poaching. He says he sometimes takes well over his customary permit allowance, or dives without a permit, to supply paua for his local marae.
“It’s hard, you know. We’ve had tangi after tangi here lately and a lot of people go to those. It’s hard turning up as a fisherman and seeing that all those people have paid a lot of money for seafood when I know I can provide it to them as a gift.”
It’s frustrating when local people, who have the ocean on their doorstep, have to pay for seafood that has been caught locally, taken to Auckland and then brought back up north to supermarkets, says Tepania—though he draws a distinction between stealing paua for local consumption and poaching for commercial gain. He says people who do so have lost touch with the Māori way of living. They have forgotten the tradition and lost respect for the ocean. “I have guys offer me money for paua but I turn them down. I think it should be for our community.”
The importance of informants
The most serious offenders are also the most elusive. Big-time poachers are too cunning to appear on king tides or at Christmas time—they know officers may be out. Instead, they’ll hit remote parts of the coastline at less-predictable times. To catch them and intercept handovers, fishery officers rely heavily on intelligence from the public. Ed Smith, an honorary officer from Kaitaia, says a typical informant is someone who’s fed up with poaching happening on his doorstep.
“He’s got really pissed off with poachers. You get good information from those people because they’re really hacked off.”
Smith cares for his informants’ safety and says he never reveals their names, even to other fishery officers. The risks are too high. “If that guy ended up upside down, you’ve got to live with that. They do a lot of thinking before they talk to you. They’ve got families, kids.”
Smith, 67, grew up in Herekino and remembers standing as a kid on the shore. “The paua were like stones in those bays. You just walked out knee-deep and picked them off. And now you’ve got to swim for them because of the take over the years.”
He tries to convey a sense of responsibility to the poachers he meets. Sometimes it works. “We say to them, ‘Look what you’re doing. What about your future generations, your kids, your cousin’s kids down the road?’ You will get a handful come back and say, ‘Yeah, you guys are right’ and ‘You need to catch that fella’.”
A losing battle?
It’s late in the afternoon and the officers have stopped a truck. Because there are five snorkellers in the vehicle, they’re allowed 50 paua between them. The officers count the paua into lines on the ute carry-tray, still alive and writhing in their shells. There are 84, and every one of them is undersized.
One of the poachers, wearing a cap, dark shades and his goatee braided in two long strands, paces the sand in agitation. “I’m pissed off,” he says after a slug from his beer bottle. “My nan wanted some pauas. Now she’s not getting any.”
Three of his companions sit silently in their truck sipping beer. A fourth is walking around talking loudly on his phone trying to find someone to issue them a permit retrospectively, which is illegal. “It’s for a birthday,” he tells the officers.
It has been a challenging operation. Over three days of patrols, the fishery officers have apprehended 33 people and seized a total of around 700 poached paua on just three low tides on one small stretch of New Zealand’s vast coastline. Other poachers have slipped through the net.
Domestic prices for wild paua have fallen from $130 per kilogram to $120. The export market has seen a steeper drop, however. Austerity measures in China have meant the upper class have eased back on extravagant dining and there is increasing competition from the international aquaculture industry promoting a cheaper product. As a result, exported paua has dropped from $80 per kilogram in 2011 to around $40 now.
“Everyone in the chain earns less,” says Cooper. “I also think that MPI has far better systems now and they have had some good prosecution wins.”
Nevertheless, paua stocks are still being depleted to critical levels in many parts of New Zealand, particularly the lower North Island. Poachers are not just taking too many paua, they are taking any size they want. They are destroying New Zealand’s future breeding stocks. A time may come when the paua simply won’t bounce back in some places. Ed Smith knows this.
“I feel quite sick about it. The family man can’t go out and get a feed any more because that resource is gone. My passion is for the future for my kids and the next generation. I’d like them to have what we had, which they won’t.”
Even so, Smith doesn’t believe they’re fighting a losing battle. “I wouldn’t do the job if it felt like that. There are heaps who get away, but we catch a lot of them too.” For him, every paua returned to the sea is a chance
As the poachers drive home with fines to pay, Smith stands on Tauroa Point picking the confiscated paua from a bin and returning them to the sea. He watches each one slip back into the water beyond the twisting kelp, each a seed that may one day line the bay as they did in his childhood, as numerous as the stones.