In New Zealand, pāua is harvested by freediving and hand gathering.
The use of Underwater Breathing Apparatus (UBA) is prohibited, except for around the Chatham Islands where UBA is permitted as a safety measure due to the increased risk that Great White Sharks pose to divers. The prohibition of UBA elsewhere is viewed by the Government as a useful control for avoiding concentrated harvesting effort to the detriment of the fishery.
Divers will normally be kitted out with good quality, unlined wetsuits, 5mm or 7mm thick depending on the season. These are armoured in high-wear areas like the knees. High-tech composite or carbon fibre fins and silicon low-volume masks and soft silicon mouthpieces for snorkels are preferred. Weights are often stored on a body harness instead of a belt, this helps with balance and protects the back during long days in the water.
Harvesting equipment consists of a mesh bag and a specialised harvesting tool, often called a pāua knife, attached by flexible wrist strap.
The harvesting tool has an integrated measure for checking the size of individual pāua while diving. Measuring ensures that each pāua meets the Minimum Legal Size (MLS) requirement of 125mm. However, in most fisheries, divers voluntarily opt to harvest pāua that are larger than the legally required 125mm size, so the measure on pāua tools can vary. This gives juvenile pāua greater opportunity to grow and breed, protects aggregations of adults and helps ensure sustainability of the fishery.
A WORKING DAY:
The pāua fleet
Almost all pāua harvesting occurs off registered fishing vessels.
The majority of the commercial pāua fleet consists of outboard engine-powered trailerable boats in the 5.5-metre to 8-metre range. Increasingly, more fuel-efficient, 4-stroke motors are used.
These boats typically day fish for pāua, leaving for the fishing grounds at first light and returning late in the afternoon to land their catch. In more remote areas, such as Fiordland, larger vessels are used as a mothership that dive crews operate from using small, fast, Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) to harvest pāua.
The larger mothership vessels, up to 20 metres in length, will do multiday trips. They have live holding tanks on board to keep the pāua in premium condition for market.
A WORKING DAY:
The dive crew
Pāua harvesting is carried out by very experienced free divers. Their day begins by travelling to fishing reefs that are selected for the day depending on weather conditions and market requirements. The larger mothership vessels anchor safely nearby and a diver support crew, often nicknamed the ‘boatboy’, prepares the RIB while divers gear up into wetsuits, 5mm to 7mm thick and snorkelling equipment. Most dive crews consist of two to four people in a team.
Divers will seek out adult pāua, typically in depths of a couple of metres down to 15-metres deep, depending on the area. Once found, the diver will free dive and carefully remove individual pāua, checking their size and placing them in their catch bag. Typically, divers will try to collect 5-10 pāua in a single breath depending on the area, though some are on record of getting 40 or more in a good area. Breath holding tends to be up to a minute at a time. Most divers are capable of much longer breathholds, but over the day it is more efficient to get into a rhythm of multiple shorter dives.
Once the catch bag is full, the diver signals the support boat to come and collect the bag. Alternatively, the bag is left on the reef, marked by a float for later pick up. The boatboy checks measurements and records the catch information electronically. Catch is packed into small tubs for transport back to the factory or stored in live wells on the main boat.
A WORKING DAY:
Landing the catch
Once the diving trip is finished, the catch is landed (taken ashore) at a Licensed Fish Receiver (LFR) where it is weighed and secured in a chiller for further processing.
By law pāua must be landed live. No processing at sea is allowed. This means that pāua are in a premium condition when they arrive at the LFR - which in turn means they are suitable for a range of value-added market product lines.
Catch and effort returns are required to be recorded for all commercial fishing inside the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and New Zealand vessels fishing on the high seas. All commercial fishers report this information, and their position, electronically through Fisheries New Zealand's Electronic Reporting (ER) and Geospatial Position Reporting (GPR) systems which were rolled out in 2019.
The pāua industry differs slightly in the information it must provide through ER/GPR: Pāua divers must record which pāua statistical area they dive in as well as whether they are targeting pāua above any industry-agreed minimum harvest size (MHS).
Once pāua are landed and recorded at the LFR, it can be processed into product for both domestic and export markets.
For the export market, the most common product is canned pāua. This involves “shucking” - that is removing the foot from the shell and cleaning it - then removing the black pigmentation, which is not attractive to certain markets. Canning portions of the catch mean that there are valuable byproducts, of which nothing is wasted. The cans are sent in packs of 24 and typically exported to Asian markets. Chefs are fond of this type of product as it acts as an excellent partner food to their own favourite sauces and flavourings.
Other products include live, which for export involves conditioning the pāua in live holding tanks and then packing it in carefully designed, insultated containers to be airfreighted to distribution hubs in target markets. The live market tends to use the larger size ranges of pāua.
Retort packaged pāua which are cooked then vacuum sealed for a long shelf life are increasingly popular too, particularly in the ready-to-eat market. Whole frozen pāua (known as Individually Quick Frozen Pāua - IQF) and processed foot also are included in the different lines of product.
The roe, viscera and “skirt” ( the loose membrane which protects the foot and lays down shell layers) each has its own market. Some for food products like sauces, some for pharmaceuticals and skin care products, and others for the health product market.
None of the pāua is wasted at any point in processing - not even the shell.