Passionate about paua
Esteemed for both its gastronomic virtues and the surreal beauty of its shell, paua is our mollusc supreme. But pressure on the resource-especially from poachers-means that the days of gathering a free feed of shellfish from the rocks may be numbered.
Just for a few moments picture yourself as a paua. Visualise yourself gliding into the tide slow and steady. Get tactile with that rock as you start tearing off some tasty algae with your rasp-action teeth.
Uh, oh. A starfish bullyboy on a hungry prowl triggers your one big muscle into a super-spasm as you cling on for dear life. You are famous for your tenacious grip. Maori used to compare their most determined warriors to paua upon the rocks, able to overcome their opponents with stub born strength.
Hold on until the danger is well past. Then unwind. Snack on a little extra algae before changing wave patterns deliver a warning of turbulent seas to come. Not only will that mean it is harder to hang on to your rock, but swirling sand may clog your gills in diabolical irritation. You must seek the safety of deeper water.
You’ve learned the rhythms of the ocean, and moving to that pulse is a breeze to you. When the surge goes your way, relax your foot muscle and skate the slippery algae a few centimetres. When the surge reverses, kick-start that muscle and hang on!
Ten metres down, amid tangled trunks of kelp, is about as deep as you ever go. Food is scarce here, your favourite drift algae few and far between. There is little time to eat, anyway, as you tuck down tight hatches battened, so to speak riding out rough seas beneath a rocky ledge.
Climbing out of your twilight zone when the storm has passed stopping frequently to graze greedily on lush slopes of algae could take several days. There is no hurry: unusually low spring tides are keeping you from venturing too high.
In any event, you’re not much of a venturer. Over the course of a year you will roam no more than a kilometre of coastline, although your daily dances with the tides mean you actually crawl many times that distance.
It’s a placid life, but the warming waters of early summer will really get you going. If you are a male paua, you will eject millions of sperm into the swirling water column. You hope some of them will meet and fertilise the multitude of tiny eggs simultaneously being sown by nearby females.
Oh what fun to be (a paua) beside the seaside!
Unless, of course some hungry human like me comes along and prises you off with a bent screwdriver. Thumbs you roughly out of your shell, at the same time twisting off your guts. Bites out your jaws, Maori style, or beats you tender, then cuts you into strips and fries you in butter with garlic and slivers of bacon, European style.
Served with a dash of lemon, paua has to be the richest seafood my addicted taste buds can get a handle on!
But gastronomy is not the only way to think of paua. Most New Zealanders, subconsciously at least, would hold paua up there with that cluster of natural symbols we have come to associate with nationhood: kiwi, tuatara, silver fern and the rest. Uniquely ours. The fiery palette of polished paua shell has long transcended the souvenir shops to become an artistic icon beyond compare: the opal of the South Seas.
How attitudes change! I can still recall my shock-horror reaction when I first saw a photo of Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s living room, the last image in Robin Morrison’s acclaimed photo-book The South Island of New Zealand From the Road. Hundreds of paua shells attached to the walls where the wallpaper should have been! To my mind, nearly 20 years on, Bluff’s pauashell house (see page 86) may as well be a national monument. Here’s to paua kitsch, ashtrays and all, as an integral part of the New Zealand tradition! And don’t tell me you never sat on one of those paua-inlaid toilet seats when you had the chance!
But let’s go back to that tender lump of paua meat, esteemed by potency-conscious Asians who are impressed by concepts of longevity and big muscles. No wonder paua has become the black gold of our export market. In more recent times, paua flesh has been bringing in something like $80 million a year in foreign exchange, almost entirely from markets in Asia.
If you’ve ever taken a trip out to the coast and picked your personal daily quota of 10 paua off the rocks, paid for in effort rather than money, it is a mind-boggling leap to comprehend what the shellfish can end up costing consumers overseas. Half a dozen good-sized paua can fetch upwards of $200 in Japan, and that’s before the chef gets his hands on them.
Last year, at a seafood banquet at the prestigious Hong Kong restaurant The Forum, chef Yeung Koon Yat (nicknamed the “Abalone King”) offered his signature dish of braised whole dried New Zealand paua for $1-1K10,000 (around $2000) a serving.
Given Asia’s present financial woes, I can’t imagine too many queuing up for paua at that price. But even in New Zealand, restaurants pay $90 a kilogram for paua, and frozen paua at that.
Few choose to put it on the menu. For most of us, paua consumption takes the form of $1.50 fritters at the local takeaway outlet. One cannot help but suspect that not too much $90/kg meat finds its way into the dark green patties that emerge from the deep frier. More likely, offal and offcuts are the contributing tissues. Suppliers are vague on the subject.
By any measure, paua are a pretty special shellfish, but they are hardly unique to New Zealand. Certainly, our main species, the black-footed paua, Haliotis iris, is found only around our shores, but it is closely allied to many similar species of marine snail collectively called abalone.
Adult abalone range in size from thumbnail-length to 35 cm-giants weighing a hefty four kilograms. They are found on subtidal rocks in all temperate and tropical seas except in the western Atlantic, and there are some 70 species in total. Worldwide, the average size of abalone is 50 mm.
The larger species tend to be found not in the tropics but in temperate waters such as ours. California has the largest abalone, a mollusc which, like the giant clam, has been responsible for the deaths of hapless divers whose fingers became trapped between shell and rock. There is even a report of a wolf which was found drowned beside. an abalone, its nose jammed under the lip of the shell.
Abalone belong to the Gastropoda class of molluscs, characterised by a single shell and an asymmetric body shape. Garden snails, limpets and periwinkles are in the same group. Abalone are considered to be rather primitive gastropods on account of the row of holes in the shell. Water which has passed across the gills exits through these holes, as do eggs and waste material. More advanced gastropods have a different pattern of water circulation and only a single shell opening one which can commonly be sealed off by a tough flap, the operculum.
Like “kayak,” “opossum,” “tomahawk,” “squash,” “canoe” and “maize,” the word “abalone” is of native American origin, from the tongue of the Costanoan people, who in habited the coast where San Francisco now stands. The name Haliotis bestowed by Linnaeus himself in 1710 means “sea ear” in Greek, as does the English term for abalone, “ormer,” a contraction of the Latin auric math.
The Maori word “paua” was picked up by Europeans in the 1840s. After accompanying local Maori to a reef near Kahurangi at low tide, explorer Charles Heaphy had this to say in his 1846 report to the Nelson provincial government: “The mutton fish, or pawa, although resembling India rubber in toughness and colour, is very excellent and substantial food for explorers, both European and native; and when it can be obtained, which is only at low water, spring tides, is much prized by those gentlemen.”
Heaphy’s use of the expression “mutton fish” verifies the paua’s status as a staple food with coastal dwellers around this time. But perhaps he was also alluding to potential income from exporting the shellfish as the “mutton of the sea.” It seems that the first serious attempt to do just that was made by a disreputable bunch of failed sealers in 1848, just two years after Heaphy’s report. Along the Kaikoura coast, these early entrepreneurs enlisted the help of local Maori to get together six tonnes of dried paua (about 30 tonnes live weight a sizeable consignment) and despatched it to Macau via Lyttelton and the London docks. There is no record of whether they succeeded in this venture, but it is worth noting that the names of two ringleaders reappear three years later listed as inaugural inmates in a makeshift Wellington debtors prison.
The end of World War II signalled the start of the modern commercial paua fishery an enterprise which turned into a nonstop hammering of the resource. It was as a source of mother-of-pearl that the paua was first sought. Mother-of-pearl is the extremely hard iridescent inner layer of the shells of pearl oysters, mussels and abalone. It has acquired a flashy history of use in virtually every major culture in the world, being employed as decorative finishes and inlays for furniture and boxes, jewellery, buttons and other ornamental objects. By the early 1950s, paua were being harvested in huge quantities, just for their shells. Truckloads of the rich meat were dumped into the sea, regarded as nothing better than fishbait.
Maori were more perceptive. For many tribes, paua meat played a significant role in manaakitanga ki nga manuhiri (hosting of visitors), especially if the visitors were of high rank.
Polished paua shell made the perfect fishing lure or a stunning adornment for the best woven garments. Captain Cook was greeted by women in the Marlborough Sounds who had girdles “very curiously worked” with red kaka feathers and adorned with pieces of paua shell “near the size of a half-crown piece.”
Maori carvers still inlay polished rings of paua or whole shells as the eyes in their figure carvings. Referred to as nzata–a–rurll, the glaring “owl eyes” invoke the ever-watchful morepork. What better eyes to have watching out for you?
Rightly admired the shell was, and still is. The surreal play of opalescent colours makes the shell of the paua stand out alongside the usually paler mother-of-pearl of other species, including all the rest of the abalone world. The colours are all due to chemical composition. Mother-of-pearl iridescence is caused by the interference of light refracting through superthin overlapping layers of calcium carbonate which have been deposited along with organic molecules in the shell. The general coloration of each abalone species is determined genetically, but there is evidence that different seaweeds in the diet influence the tones that predominate in a shell.
There are regional variations in colouring, too, a fact well appreciated by paua shell buyers. The most sought-after shells are usually sourced from colder waters where they grow more slowly: Kaikoura, Fiordland and Stewart Island, in particular. In the northern North Island, shells grow rapidly, but rarely exceed 90 mm in size and are always thin and unsuited to jewellery work. Chatham Island paua shell, of which an average 10 tonnes gets shipped out monthly, tends to be slightly thinner than southern mainland shells because the animal grows faster, but the colour is very good.
“Good jewellery shell is thick to work and multicoloured,” says Denis Baird of Ariki New Zealand in Blenheim. “We look for deep blue opalescences, rich greens, luminous fiery flashes. That’s what sells.”
Baird should know. Ariki has been making paua jewellery since 1932, and last year exported over 300,000 handcrafted items to two dozen countries including Estonia and the Czech Republic. On the factory floor, a veritable army of masked grinders, polishers and expert manufacturing jewellers toils under a fine mist of paua dust which is sucked away by extractor fans labouring in the wings.
Continues Baird: “We’ve tapped into a successful niche market, but the trade is nothing to what it used to be. There’s a lot more competition, particularly from Asian manufacturers.
Most of the paua-shell jewellery sold in New Zealand is now made overseas [from exported shell] and reimported. Even in Te Papa [the recently opened Museum of New Zealand], all the jewellery on sale has been made somewhere like the Philippines.”
Ariki has had to reduce staff numbers by half (to 50) in recent years. Baird blames shortsighted government policy for some of that decline: “In the mid-1980s they foolishly began lifting export restrictions on the shell. Before that, only the lower-grade shell that New Zealand manufacturers didn’t want was available to overseas buyers. Most of it went into furniture and was lacquered. Now anyone can buy a container of jewellery-grade shell. Paua shell is uniquely New Zealand, and letting our best go overseas is just crazy. We should be adding value to it here.”
Good paua shell has sold for as much as $20 a kilogram, but is now fetching less than half that price another casualty of the Asian economic crisis.
Initially, it was the advent of cheap plastics in the 1950s and ’60s that knocked the wind out of mother-of-pearl markets, but it happened just as worldwide demand for abalone meat was taking off.
Here in New Zealand, perhaps a few years behind the rest of the world, pressure went back on paua. Every man and his snorkel went after it.
First shells, then meat; 40 years of almost non-stop hammering and it began to show during the 1980s. Even the introduction of a Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) during the 1986-87 season, for each of the eight Quota Management Areas (QMAs) that surround our coast, did little to allay fears that paua was on the way out.
“In 1990, when we set up a liaison network with Ngai Tahu and the recreational fishers, customary and recreational harvesters expressed more concern about paua than any other fish species,” says Laurel Teirney, manager of the Ministry of Fisheries South policy team based in Dunedin. “Those who gathered paua from the shore without the aid of snorkel or boat were particularly concerned, and felt that they were being excluded from the fishery.”
In 1992, a Paua Management Working Group was set up with representatives of Ngai Tahu and commercial, recreational and environmental groups to develop a management plan for the important PAU 5 southern quota area. Commercial operators took a voluntary 10 per cent cut in quota, and PAU 5 was subdivided into three areas, easing the fishing pressure on Stewart Island, where 70 per cent of the catch had been taken.
Although fishing was reduced around Stewart Island, along the Otago coastline it increased. In built-up areas such as Shag Point and Warrington, locals resented the appearance of commercial divers, fearing that the resource they valued so highly could not provide for everyone’s interests.
Both sides have valid points: recreational fishers expecting to find paua where they always have been, and commercial fishers with a livelihood to sustain and a legal entitlement to fill.
It should be pointed out here that most of the world’s abalone fisheries have completely collapsed. The Mexican and Californian abalone fisheries are oft-quoted examples, but we can add Japan of late (probably attributable to increases in near-shore pollution.)
The details are sobering. In California, total commercial abalone landings fell from a high of 2500 tonnes in 1956 to 230 tonnes in 1990. Over-fishing, the resurgence of sea otters (which eat abalone), and disease outbreaks all contributed to the decline.
The downward trend worldwide has created a nervous environment in which to manage the only remaining fisheries: in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Unfortunately, management has typically involved hastily made decisions producing mixed results.
“Fears of over-exploitation prompted the introduction of catch quotas in all the major abalone fisheries left intact,” says Paul McShane, a former Ministry of Fisheries scientist now studying abalone in Adelaide. “In virtually every case, though, these limits were not introduced on the basis of sound research. They were nothing more than educated guesses as to safe catch levels.”
In fact, the quotas were usually calculated from landed tonnages and anecdotal reports from commercial fishermen as to ease of harvesting. Now, thanks to more rigorous research on paua stocks and biology instigated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1992 and continued by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) three years later, we know that that approach was seriously flawed. And using it to set quotas has almost certainly been detrimental to stocks. Carrying out an accurate paua stock assessment has become a national priority.
Marine ecologist Reyn Naylor took over NIWA’s paua research programme after McShane left for Australia. The imminent prospect of jumping off a pitching deck into a two-metre swell off Caswell Sound in Fiordland does not seem to concern him in the slightest as he enlightens me further upon his favourite subject.
“Landings data, especially over large areas, turned out to be a poor indicator of long-term sustainability of stocks, because experienced and highly motivated fishers could maintain high catch rates by just skimming hot spots, even though the overall paua population [the biomass] may have declined substantially.”
Naylor’s three-person research team is in southern New Zealand on a year-long mission. Of the eight quota management areas, PAU 5, encompassing Fiordland, Stewart Island and the Catlins/Otago coast, is the largest, with a TACC of 450 tonnes shared by more than 100 quota holders. Many of these operators are worried that grounds that once yielded heavy catches of paua, such as the entire eastern coast of Stewart Island, are now only marginal or not worth fishing at all. Remaining stocks get hammered, and quota holders are forced to fish more isolated and exposed grounds.
“Two things our biological research has shown is that different substocks can vary widely in both their growth rate and recruitment—the process in which juveniles emerge from hiding and grow on to become part of the fishery,” says Naylor.
“Colonies on very exposed coasts, where fewer juveniles are found, probably consist largely of old paua which have accumulated there. Once they are harvested, it may take years for the areas to recover. Over the last 40 years, we’ve probably seen the serial depletion of many of these stocks. With the increasing price incentives in the industry, paua has never been fished harder than it is today.”
Enough postulation from an action man. He dons his mask and dives overboard with buddy Steve Mercer, both connected by hookah rig to an onboard compressor. Although Naylor has found paua as deep as 20 m, their surveys are conducted within the normal paua range, 0.6 m below the low tide mark to around 10 m deep. Rather than attempt the logistically difficult exercise of estimating the actual density or biomass of paua over large areas in the field, they will use this dive to monitor relative abundance, estimated by the number and size of paua aggregations each diver encounters during a 10-minute search. The advantage of this system is that a lot of sample sea bottoms can be covered in one day.
Naylor tells me that the taking of adult paua (a 125 mm size limit for black-footed paua ensures that only adults are taken) is sustainable only if there are enough juveniles waiting around to fill the gaps.
Young paua emerge from their hiding places as they start to mature at the age of three and four years, taking up positions on the reef. How many make it to adulthood depends on the coast, and every coast is different.
Naylor postulates that the relative abundance of juvenile paua off the Catlins coast as opposed to their rarity off Fiordland and Stewart Island could be attributed to reef type and wave exposure: “The sandstone reef around the Catlins is complex, with lots of nooks and crannies where young paua can hide and survive. Off Fiordland and Stewart Island the reef surface is smooth granite, often in the form of large boulders. Here there is little protection for the juveniles, which are either removed by heavy seas or crushed by boulders rolling around the reef.”
One theory suggests that paua “nurseries” just inside sheltered sounds supply recruits to more exposed localities by migration. The protected Marlborough Sounds, for example, have relatively large numbers of juveniles, which is reassuring to divers harvesting stocks further out. Studies of the movement of tagged paua have shown that, given time, they may move several kilometres.
“We don’t really know enough yet,” admits Naylor. “Certainly, the vastness of this southern coast and its exposure to some pretty mean weather will spare it the full attention of fishers, although our results collected to date definitely reveal some warning signs for the industry, especially in stocks with low recruitment processes.”
New Zealand’s legal commercial take of wild paua is currently set at 1200 tonnes a year. That represents a reasonable pare of a limited world market, compared to South Africa’s 800 tonnes, Tasmania’s 3500, Victoria’s 1500 and South Australia’s 900 tonnes.
But what makes our paua fishery really stand out is that it is a “free dive” fishery. Commercial and amateur fishers alike are forbidden to use scuba gear. Australian and South African commercial divers usually work in drysuits and are fed air via a hose from a compressor. Using mask and snorkel is a much tougher way to make a living, working in surges around wave battered rocks, staying under water for one to two minutes at a time.
You hear the odd horror story, especially from the Chatham Islands, which boasts the highest concentration of great white sharks on the planet. Kina Scollay, formerly of Waitangi, the Chathams’ main settlement, shows me his ultimate dive souvenir: a battered weightbelt clearly indented with the huge teeth marks of a great white which munched him right around his middle and nearly tore off his leg while he was diving for paua in 1995.
Not even a year later, another Chatham Islands paua diver, Vaughan Hill, suffered more terrible injuries when a great white shark attacked him while he was working in water just two metres deep, 100 metres off the coast of Pitt Island.
Offsider Eddie Rerita recalls when he first saw his workmate in trouble. “I was on the boat stacking paua. He was under the water at the time. All of a sudden, he was on the surface screaming, thrashing around in the froth of his own blood. I managed to get the boat over to him, heaved him aboard, wrapped his spouting wounds in blankets, and headed full bore for Pitt Island.”
A Cessna braved terrible weather to land there so Hill could be taken to the main airfield for transfer to intensive care in Wellington. Some 60 islanders turned up at Waitangi airfield to donate blood, and he pulled through.
Nearly two dozen boats still work the Chatham Islands paua beds (PAU 4), sharing a TACC of around 320 tonnes this year.
Typical crew is one “boat boy” and one or two divers. As well as crayfishing, Eddie Rerita still earns a living pulling paua, usually just by himself these days. “I still see the odd great white when I’m out. I certainly look over my shoulder a bit more now when I’m in the water. You have to accept that risk as part of being a paua diver,” he says.
Comparisons between New Zealand and Australian catch rates suggest that our free-diving commercial paua gatherers perform at least as well as their Australian counterparts with breathing apparatus. A good diver can easily bring up over 100 kilograms of green (unshucked) paua an hour. That’s anywhere between 300 and 400 paua. If you’ve ever cursed and sworn them off the rocks with a bent screwdriver while trying to hold your breath under water, you’ll know that’s pretty good going!
Virtually the entire commercial wild fishery is for the common black-footed paua. The smaller, less abundant yellow-footed or queen paua, Haliotis australis, often found together with its larger cousin, is taken in much smaller quantities and has a minimum catch size of 80 mm.
Queen paua tend to hide in crevices, and can be distinguished by the silvery internal lustre and ridgy exterior of the shell and by the colour of the foot, which, despite the name, is actually more orange than yellow. It is said that Maori traditionally would not take yellowfoots, believing them to be female blackfoots; hence their being named queen paua by Europeans.
There is a third paua species, the small (30-35 mm) virgin paua, Haliotis virginea, well known to beach combing children throughout the country. The interior of its shell has a blue-grey iridescence and is finely wrinkled. Although distributed from North Cape to Stewart Island, the species is comparatively uncommon. The foot is a dirty white colour.
Two larger (40-50 mm) subspecies of virgin paua have also been identifled: moriori from the Chathams and huttoni from the Auckland Islands.
Paua more than any other local fishery, has acquired an association with big money. But are fortunes really being made from black molluscan gold?
First, like any primary commodity, paua prices are prone to fluctuation. At the time of writing, the price being paid for green unshucked paua has plummeted to below $25 a kilogram, attributed to failing Asian economies. Over the past decade, the price has been as high as $120 a kilogram.
In all abalone fisheries, increasing prices paid for flesh to fishers has always been tied to the value of entitlements, called quota in this country. Ten years ago in Victoria, you could pick up 20 tonnes of abalone quota for around $A150,000. That same quota today (if you could get it) would be worth almost $3 million.
Similar trends have been evident within the paua industry here. If you can get hold of it, paua quota will currently set you back $180,000$220,000 a tonne. Nearly all the big parcels have been subdivided and sold off into small packets. A few years ago in PAU 7 (from Kahurangi Point around Marlborough to the Clarence River), for instance, something like 75 registered vessels were chasing 264 tonnes of allocated paua.
Lately, quota holdings seem to be consolidating again, with fewer of the “old boy” quota holders actually working in the industry. They tend to hire younger, more energetic “catchers” to do the harvesting.
Note here that when we talk about quota tonnage, we are talking about the green or unshucked weight in the factory prior to processing. All fishers must sell their catch whole that way the Ministry of Fisheries can check for undersize shellfish. Once the shell and guts of the paua have been removed (shucked), only 45 per cent of the animal remains. So effectively a 10-tonne quota means only 4.5 tonnes of saleable meat.
“Paua might have been big money once, but today you’d be lucky if a quota returned you much more than 10 per cent on your investment,” says Bill Wallace. He plunged into the paua business with six tonnes of quota when the ministry opened up the Kahurangi Coast as an experimental fishery in 1994. Its dense clusters of paua-150-plus animals were the highest recorded in any recent survey in New Zealand.
“The attraction for me was the thought of getting stuck in and pulling your whole yearly quota in a few weeks or so,” says Wallace.
“Most paua fishermen have other businesses,” he adds.
This sideline approach to fishing paua is a necessity, because paua gatherers only have small windows of good weather when they can operate. In the case of the wilderness coastline of Kahurangi, where wind and waves howl in off the Tasman nine days out of ten, there was simply not enough good weather.
“Many of the quota holders had trouble filling their quotas,” says Wallace. “But it wasn’t only weather and poor markets. Despite the appearance of abundant paua, there just wasn’t the overall population. They shift us all down at the end of the 1996 season and closed the fishery. We gave it our best shot, but I guess I’ll leave it to the big boys in future.”
This most recent experiment in overfishing, called a “fishdown” in the trade, removed 110 tonnes of probably ancient paua over two years along this formerly virgin coast. With few juveniles along the battered rocks to take their place, coastal trampers may have to go without fresh paua for decades before the stock fully recovers. The big cluster colonies of paua used to be truly magnificent to see. At dead low spring tides, they would be high and dry along the rock fissures, all touching, sealed firmly, caught out.
I shouldn’t paint too gloomy a picture here. There is still plenty of paua around, especially if you’re prepared to get down deep. Alan Cobbil-Well, who operates out of Picton, dives deeper than most, often working the 10 – 15 metre zone to get his paua.
“The fattest ones are down deep,” he says.Like many paua fishermen faced with rising costs, he sold his quota but continues catching on contract.
“Sure, there’s still big money in paua, but then there’s one massive outlay and plenty of risk after that,” he says, stacking paua into bins on his high-powered aluminium boat. We’re anchored precariously close to a pinnacle of weathered granite just around from the entrance to Tory Channel. Paua are densest around headlands, perhaps because the swirling waters do a better job mixing the eggs and sperm.
A rising sou’wester is delivering stern warning of dirty weather. There is no time to dawdle as Cobbil-Well’s offsider pulls up alongside in a small inflatable bearing a couple more 20 kg bags of paua. Another three bins to fill, and no smoko break until the job is done.
“A fast, seaworthy boat is essential. Means you can get out if it comes up Land based paua farms hold their stocks of growing molluscs in large tanks through which filtered seawater is pumped, and feed them a diet of artificial food pellets (opposite) and seaweed. The backs of the shells of young paua fed on artificial food are generally a vivid turquoise, whereas weed-fed specimens are khaki green. Cultured shells are usually free from most of the encrustations that coat shells in the wild. Active paua rarely seen because the animals are nocturnal use an array of tentacles to sense their surroundings as they move about. Once they reach seven centimetres the size at which the largest individuals are shown opposite they are air-freighted live to restaurants in Asia, some perhaps to end up in the $2000/head dishes of Hong Kong’s “Abalone King,” Yeung Koon Yat (top right). rough,” says Cobbil -Well. Also a paua buyer, he knows his business well. “One big problem for the industry is that it has no national body, no voice. A lot of self-interest and in-talking goes on. Also, concerns differ from region to region.”
Tell me about it! I got earfuls of paua politics doing this story, but Cobbil-Well’s seemed a more rational voice than many: “Yes, paua are less plentiful, for whatever reason. Us commercial guys will have to face up to it sometime soon another quota cut, or reallocation of quota areas at least. But you can’t always blame the fishermen. I’ve seen storm sand drifts that have buried colonies. Then there’s the poachers. These are the bad guys. Look at the south Wellington coast, off limits to commercial divers, yet it’s been cleaned out in the last few years. And that’s where a lot of the surveillance effort is going into. Where I work (PAU 7), it’s mostly left up to us to do the surveillance. Same for every paua fisherman working remote places.”
Penalties for breaches of paua fisheries regulations are stiff. Illegal fishers can immediately forfeit all the equipment used to carry out the crime. This can, and often does, include boat, boat trailer and the vehicle used to tow them. And that’s just the start. There’s the fine, not to exceed $250,000, and jail to top it off if a judge sees fit. Four men who recently conspired to illegally take paua and successfully exported half a million dollars of it to Australia each got 18 months jail and a $30,000 fine. In sentencing them in Wellington, Justice Heron said the offences amounted to environmental treachery and economic treason.
The Ministry of Fisheries’ chief compliance officer for paua is Dave McCulloch, based in Wellington. This determined detective has no sympathy for anyone breaking the law, and put it to me straight: “First, they’re defrauding the legal quota holders and public of the economic benefit, and second, they’re depleting the paua resource. It’s only finite. Unless we deal to offenders seriously, we won’t have a resource; simple as that.”
The size of the illegal take is staggering. Known seizures alone amount to 33 per cent of the TACC for the entire country. Then there are the deals that McCulloch’s understaffed surveillance team don’t intercept. Dozens of them. Several Wellington-based paua poaching gangs are known to operate along the Wairarapa coast, for instance, supplying the highly lucrative and newly arrived Asian market in Auckland. “We’re getting them one by one, but each one is a major investigative operation involving numerous staff,” says McCulloch.
The ministry employs 110 fisheries officers nationwide. McCulloch’s office has four permanently assigned to paua. Their poacher-busting beat is almost half the country—lower North Island and upper South. One tip-off recently saw them swoop on a van travelling through Lower Hutt. Inside they found 400 shucked paua worth around $7200 on their way to Auckland. There was no paperwork. A highly experienced gang of four was busted. All vehides and diving gear were confiscated, and there’s a fine still to come.
Genuine paua fishers fear that their quotas will be restricted still further because the excessive illegal catches are not allowing some of the more depleted stocks to recover
While the long term outlook for wild paua is uncertain, interest in farming paua is burgeoning. Lennard Tong of NIWA’s Aquaculture section in Mahanga Bay, Wellington, could rightly be regarded as the father of paua farming.
“When I first spawned paua in the early eighties, it generated huge interest. Every man and his dog wanted to farm them tomorrow,” he says.
Tong has been running courses for would-be paua farmers since the mid-1980s. He gives me the low-down: “Paua require very specific conditions. Clean seawater, for a start. They won’t tolerate freshwater intrusion or silt, particularly the juveniles. The outer Marlborough Sounds is particularly suitable. Port Underwood, for instance: no big rivers, and strong currents flushing the system. Stewart Island, too, is an excellent location for ocean ranching of paua. The possibility of large-scale enhancement of depleted areas with captive-bred juvenile stock is also a field we are putting quiet a bit of energy into at the moment.”
So far, around 75 sea-based paua farming licenses have been issued, mostly as extensions to established mussel-based operations. Canny aquaculturists hedging their bets. Some 24 land-based farms have been approved, with 11 of them now up and, well, moving, if not quite running. Despite the 20 years of enthusiasm for paua aquaculture, no operations are yet producing paua for meat on a commercial basis.
Cliff Cowan set up Caroline Abalone a hundred metres or so inland from Patiti Point, south of Timaru. His building looks just like any small industrial warehouse, but inside are 10 giant tanks filled with salt water being circulated at 24,000 litres an hour.
The juveniles mainly feed at night, and tend to congregate together in social groups. Cowan dips his arm in and plucks out one slightly bigger than his thumbnail. “Within a year and a half this one will be a saleable 70 mm. Our forecast production of one and a half tonnes a year shouldn’t be any problem to dispose of in Asia, economic turmoil or not.”
In theory, feeding your pet paua is relatively easy: you just mince up some of their favourite seaweeds or toss them a few handfuls of proprietary feed. Yet to harvest seaweed on a large scale requires a permit, and few of these have been granted. Conservation sentiment means mat resource consents are not handed out lightly, and studies on feeding preferences suggest mat it is the finely divided, smaller red and brown algae that paua prefer, rather than the larger leathery species that are more readily gathered.
Artificial food, like most convenience foods, comes at a high price. Kiwi Co-Op Dairies in Hawera make a casein strip that is hung over me side of the tank. Juvenile paua love the casein-based product-pure protein for that growing muscle. Later, they get to munch on bagged feed containing around 40 per cent processed seaweed. This was initially imported from South Africa, but some is now manufactured in New Zealand.
Each paua farm seems to have developed its own approach to feeding and housing its charges. The SeaRight Investments farm in Akaroa Harbour feeds locally harvested seaweed to paua grown at sea in barrels.
At Abalonics, a facility opposite Kawau Island, north of Auckland, plastic tanks and trays have been designed and fabricated on site with a view to optimising the handling and growth of paua onshore at every stage of their lives.
Controlling the spawning of paua is a dicey, yet crucial, business for a land-based farm. At Abalonics, “ripe” adults are sexed (female gonads are green, males cream) and induced to spawn in individual trays, and the gametes are then mixed at predetermined ratios to fertilise the eggs.
Eggs are pale green in colour and 0.2 mm in diameter. A female may produce five million or more in a breeding season, which in nature runs from late summer to spring, but in captivity can be manipulated by water temperature and feed levels.
Within hours of fertilisation the eggs hatch into minute, non-feeding, free-floating veliger larvae, which in the wild help disperse the species. Here they are confined in carefully designed vats. After ten days, larvae have exhausted their onboard yolk supplies and are ready to abandon life adrift for a settled existence on some suitable surface.
Abalonics is able to induce the larvae to settle on corrugated plastic sheets which are coated with micro-algae suited to the infant paua’s taste. Fluorescent lights are necessary to promote growth of the nutrient algae, but the young paua themselves are strongly photophobic, and find places to hide until the lights are turned off at night. “There are about 40,000 young paua in that tank,” hatchery manager Dean Rawlings announces, pointing to a tank. I can see about 50.
The shells of many of the young paua are a rich blue colour on the back. Rawlings explains that the colour comes from a diet rich in artificial food: “See the khaki zones on the backs of these shells—that colour comes from feeding on seaweed.”
Abalonics feeds blends of manmade food from a variety of sources, as well as a small amount of Gracilaria, a free-floating, finely divided species of alga collected nearby and grown on in the premises.
All the buildings are so clean that there is not even the smell of salt water. “It has taken us five years of experimentation and development to get the system sorted out, but we’ve basically got everything sussed now,” Rawlings says. Even so, it is far from plain sailing for would-be paua barons.
“Apart from the technical challenges, there have been two hurdles which we and other paua farmers face,” says Rawlings. “The first is regulations, and getting requisite permits and approvals. It’s incredibly expensive and time-consuming. Much of the problem arises because aquaculture in New Zealand is considered a branch of fishing, which it isn’t at all, and is governed by fisheries legislation. Is animal farming a branch of hunting? We have been interested in setting up an operation in Victoria, where they are eager to triple the size of their aquaculture industry by 2003. Believe me, there it is infinitely easier to gain the necessary approvals. Their government is keen for you to succeed, and actually helps you!
“The other hassle is money. It has cost us millions to get this far, but it will be another two or three years before we start generating much income. Banks refuse to lend to us, and there is no local venture capital. We have to get overseas venture capital, and that is not so easy. And it means that eventually many of the profits from paua will go offshore.”
Abalonics’ present premises house several hundred thousand small paua, which, when they reach 70 mm, will sell for about $4 each, and its site, if fully developed, could produce tens of millions of paua a year equivalent to the tonnage of the total current wild catch from the whole of New Zealand.
Land-based paua farmers have a major advantage over harvesters of wild paua in that they can legally sell undersize product, especially whole “gourmet abalone,” sized 60-70 mm, which fetch a premium price in Asia as live shellfish, the preferred state for traded abalone. For live paua, the black colour is not a problem in Asian markets, apart from Japan. But for frozen or canned abalone the way our large wild-caught paua are exported a pale-coloured animal is preferred. In consequence, most of our wild-fished paua is bleached.
Exactly what chemicals are used in the bleaching process is one of the industry’s little secrets. Sealord Shellfish in Nelson and Prepared Foods in Palmerston North are the main processors. Large consignments of paua from as far away as the Chatham Islands come to these factories for bleaching and canning. Divers deliver their catches to local packhouses which shuck, pack, chill and freight the meat to the canneries.
To my senses, bleached paua from the can carry a slight but noticeable chemical smell and taste. Health regulations concerning chemical residues in processed food mean only abalone buyers in Hong Kong and Singapore will touch it.
James Francis of Island Hatcheries in Horseshoe Bay, Stewart Island, believes his development of a natural bleaching process (near completion) will open up whole new export markets. “Our process will take the black film from the paua without using any chemicals,” he says, enthusiastically. “We’re projecting $180 per kilo for our product.”
Then he adds, sanguinely, “Of course, its all about attracting investment first.”
Francis is on the executive of the Paua Growers Association, a group that now boasts 80-odd members. He tells me that, unfortunately for the aquaculture industry, farming the smaller yellow-footed paua is proving difficult. The disappointment arises because the creamy flesh of this species is exactly what Asians desire, and the species has a higher meat yield than black-footed paua.
In time, growing paua for meat may be eclipsed by vet another development: paua pearls.
Until recently, Rodney Ewing ran Rainbow Abalone, on reclaimed land at Port Taranaki in New Plymouth, as a paua hatchery, selling 12 mm paua to industry farmers. “Not much different from supplying weaner cattle for beef growers,” he commented, pragmatically.
Ewing’s lucky break came when he convinced the wealthy Chiu family of Taiwan to buy 75 per cent of his company and inject a cool $3 million into the business to change its emphasis towards pearl production.
In order to grow pearls, abalone must be four years old and of sufficient size to accommodate a plastic implant around which the paua proceeds to deposit its pearly nacre. In paua pearls, this is cool fire-coloured, reflecting and refining the flashy colours of the shell, even up into the purple range.
Paua pearls are a uniquely New Zealand product which is eagerly being sought by international gem traders, who rely on new products to stimulate interest. The last big market excitement came from black pearls.
Only one in four paua actually lays down a pearl around its implant. But then, Ewing’s factory is home to over 800,000 paua of varying ages. “Implanting is a delicate operation,” says Ewing. “You have to be extra-careful not to cut the paua, because the species doesn’t have a clotting agent. Any nick and it can bleed to death.”
Do it properly and the paua will immediately start growing shell material over the implant, creating a saleable pearl in around two years. “We’re concentrating on half-round blister pearls, called mabe, because they’re easier to grow.”
Potential profits from pearls dramatically exceed those from farming the animal for meat. On current values, a 13.5 mm abalone pearl, mounted on jewellery, retails for $500 to $3500. Ewing believes New Zealanders tragically undervalue their paua as a natural resource. “That’s because they’re still found in some abundance.”
Shells, meat, pearls. What a mollusc!
The other day, my teenage son and I headed off to a favourite spot on the wild West Coast. We came across a “wicked” patch of paua and pulled our bag limit in a matter of minutes. Uncivilised triumph.
I resisted telling my son to remember that image of bountiful paua, but in the back of my mind I was wondering whether he would have to tell his kids, rather than showing them, what it was once like around our coast. I hope it doesn’t come to that.
With sound management and a better awareness of paua’s preciousness, our grandkids, too, will be able to pull a few paua for a good feed.
For me, the last word goes to Laurel Teirney: “Our paua resource isn’t just a livelihood, it’s an integral part of our heritage. For many of us, sun-bleached paua shells still conjure up precious memories of long, hot carefree summers by the sea. The challenge now is to find ways of ensuring that the paua fishery is sustainable, so that we have something worthwhile to pass on to those who follow.”