The story of New Zealand’s commercial pāua
fishery begins in the 1940s.
Pāua was initially fished for its prized shells and used in jewellery making. After the second world war there was a ban on the export of raw shell to help returned servicemen develop domestic jewellery markets and skills. Only a small domestic market for paua meat existed. It wasn’t until the 1960s that pāua was fished more regularly for its meat and the export market due to the development of a viable canning process.
By the late 70s, fishing efforts for pāua had increased across most of the country, with estimates of nearly 2000 tonnes of pāua being landed at its peak in 1981. International market demand and canning technology meant that demand and fishing effort for pāua meat was at an all-time high. New Zealand’s pāua fisheries were headed on the same trajectory as other abalone fisheries around the globe: The Californian abalone fishery collapsed in the late 70s due to overfishing and remains shut to this day. The South African abalone fishery closed in 2007 and the Chinese wild abalone fishery collapsed many years before that.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the Quota Management System and fisheries act in 1986 that the total commercial catch was regulated by way of a cap, reducing total commercial catch levels from approximately 1900 tonnes in 1981 to 1100 tonnes in 1987.
Five representative organisations, known as Pāua Management Area Councils (PauaMACs), were established in 2004 to engage in regional issues and to promote sustainable management of each of the 11 pāua fisheries (Quota Management Areas) around the country. An umbrella agency, the Pāua Industry Council, was subsequently set up in 2005. The result has been a more collective approach to managing the pāua fishing, with kaitiakitanga – guardianship of the resource – as a guiding principle.
Industry members have since worked together to improve each pāua fishery through careful fine-scale management. Through their PauaMACs, quota owners in some areas have agreed to voluntarily take less than their quota of pāua to preserve the health of the fishery. With these voluntary catch reductions in place, industry only harvests around 720 tonnes of pāua across New Zealand. In many areas, industry members have voluntarily increased their harvest size well above the Minimum Legal Size (MLS) of 125mm. For example, in areas around Stewart Island commercial divers only harvest pāua that are larger than 140mm in length. This allows the pāua to reproduce for several more years before they become available for harvesting and it also makes more pāua available for harvesting by customary and recreational fishers.
Today, the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) is a modest 919 tonnes. New Zealand’s pāua fisheries have recovered from the fishing pressure experienced in the early 80s and are now considered sustainable - and one of only a few sustainable commercial abalone fisheries to exist in the world.
A taonga from the sea
In pre-European times and before the onset of commercial fishing, pāua was a significant kaimoana (seafood) for Māori and is still considered a taonga (treasured) species. In Māori mythology, pāua was created as a gift from Tangaroa, the god of the sea. He said:
“I will take from my domain the coolest blues of the ocean. And ask of my brother Tane the freshest greens of the forest. From the dawn you shall have a tinge of violet. From the sunset a blush of pink. And overall there will be a shimmer of mother of pearl."
Tangaroa fashioned for pāua a coat that sparkled and dazzled with its beauty. But it was fragile and soon broken by sea creatures who were envious of pāua's new appearance. Tangaroa saw this and strengthened the shell and added a camouflage coat to enable pāua to blend in with the drab greys and browns of the rocks. He then charged Pāua with the life-long task of adding layer upon delicate layer, each a different hue and blend. So it was that pāua got its shell. Pāua hugs its secret of inner beauty and only at the end of its life, when its empty shell washes ashore, is his artistry revealed.
Māori fished for pāua long before European settlers arrived in Aotearoa, gathering the molluscs from shallow waters along the shore. Harvesting was a seasonal occupation, part of the cycle of food-growing and gathering essential to the community. The harvest was gathered and prepared for three purposes – immediate need, ceremonial occasions such as hui (meetings) and hākari (feasts), and provisions to store for the winter. Not only a valuable source of food, pāua was considered a delicacy by iwi, so much so that it held an important role in manaakitanga ki nga manuhiri - the hosting of visitors. None of the pāua would go to waste - with the thick lip of the shell fashioned into pā kahawai, fishing lures, and carved into jewellery. Pieces of pāua could also be seen adorning tribal cloaks and as inlay in Māori carvings.
It wasn't until the 1840s that Europeans learned of pāua after explorer, Charles Heaphy, accompanied a local māori tribesman to a reef near Kahurangi at low tide. Heaphy subsequently reported it as an excellent food source for his men: