In the remote, cold waters of the deep south, Stewart Island’s pāua fishery is providing a blueprint for sustainable harvesting. EMILY POPE reports:
It was the early 90s when commercial pāua divers from the tiny settlement of Stewart Island (Rakiura) started to become seriously worried. Over pints at Oban’s South Sea Hotel, they voiced their alarm at the massive amount of pāua being taken – 400 tonnes. Collectively, they agreed it was up to them to take action – the alternative, a likely loss of the fishery.
Some 30 years on, divers are reaping the benefits of that watershed moment.
Spawning biomass is rising, harvest sizes are the best they have ever been and the fishery, while still being fished conservatively, is pending a 20 percent increase in Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC), from 90 to 108 tonnes - a milestone that Pāua Industry Council chair Stormalong Stanley contends is an international first.
The Fisheries Minister signed off on the increase in 2018, subject to the resolution of 28N rights.
“It’s a real nod to the health of the fishery,” says Stanley.
The Californians collapsed their fishery in the late 70s, early 80s and it’s still shut. The South Africans closed their abalone fishery by 2007 and the Japanese wild abalone fishery collapsed many years before that.
“In a world littered with collapsed fisheries, we are getting it right.”
At its peak, as many as 400 tonnes of pāua were being harvested from the island’s coast each year. Commercial trade boomed with canning technology and fishers began exporting product to China and Japan for good money and few overheads.
It was a lucrative way to make a living.
“Pāua wasn’t expensive to catch. You didn’t need 100 cray pots, or a 60ft boat to fish. You could jump right into the water and have a good catch in reasonable time,” Stanley says.
By the early 80s, Stewart Island was the most attractive place to fish in the South, both commercially and recreationally. The island was much closer and more accessible than Fiordland, and the waters were always clear.
“You could dive in pretty much any weather and catches of over a tonne a day were to be expected,” Stanley says.
“Any Joe Bloggs could obtain a permit to catch a tonne a week and multiple permits were often divvied out to a single person.”
The introduction of the Quota Management System (QMS) in 1986 sought to cap the catch but failed to address the sheer geographic size of the fishery.
“The QMS was undoubtedly a positive move for the fishery but there wasn’t a fine enough spatial aspect to it,” Stanley says.
He and his fellow divers at the time – pāua legends Paul Young, Ross Newton, Paul Pascoe, Ivan Garton, Richard Langdon and Bruce Skinner – agreed over a pint at the
pub one evening that what was happening to their fishery “wasn’t very clever”.
“Even with the cap, we knew more pāua was being taken than what could be sustained.”
They made the collective decision in the early 90s to take it on the chin and voluntarily lose quota. Conversations with the Ministry resulted in a 10 percent TACC cut, reducing the fishery to 447 tonnes, from 500.
“That was really the beginning of pāua divers thinking and acting collectively for the good of the fishery,” Stanley says. “We instinctively knew that, if we wanted our quota to be worth anything in 20 to 30 years’ time, we had to look after our fishery.”
New Zealand’s pāua fishery is divided into 11 Quota Management Areas (QMAs), with catch allowance set depending on population size, stock health and fishing pressure.
Stewart Island was initially part of one giant fishing ground, stretching from the top of Fiordland across to Waitaki River, with everything south of that considered
one large QMA. Too much quota was being focussed on too small an
“If you have a fuel tank, you put baffles in it to prevent fuel from filling up one end. What we needed was a type of baffling system to make sure that the catch was spread around the coastline,” Stanley says.
Aware that the initial 10 percent reduction was not going to cut it, Stanley and colleagues swapped wetsuits for coats and ties and headed to the then Ministry of Fisheries office in
Dunedin – meeting with several young “pointy heads in suits” to find a solution. It was agreed that, based on the best available information, the most reasonable approach would be to divide the 447-tonne fishery into three areas – Pau5A, Fiordland; Pau5B, Stewart Island; and Pau5D, Southland/Otago – allocating 149 tonnes of catch to each.
Stanley credits a young policy analyst Mark Edwards, now chief executive of the New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council, as being fundamental to the successful subdivision in 1995.
“It was a fantastic piece of collaborative work and a timely response by the Ministry.”
Anxiously awaiting signs of recovery, divers soon realised the problem ran deeper than basic catch figures.
“Data was a luxury,” says Stanley. “We only had anecdotal evidence of the fishery’s health to work off based on what we saw out there in the water – and what we continued to see was a fishery that couldn’t sustain its catch.
“Even with the TACC cuts and subdivision, it was clear to all of us that 149 tonnes were still too much for Pau5B.”
By this stage, Dunedin officials had come to know Stanley and his colleagues on a first name basis. The collective stood, once again in the Ministry office, voicing their unease and pushing for action.
They were right to be concerned. The two ensuing stock assessments pointed to the need for an eye watering 40 percent TACC reduction, knocking Pau5B down to just a 90-tonne fishery.
“We all agreed that the Ministry’s modelling showed the cut would be an effective way of rejuvenating stocks,” saysStanley. “We didn’t grizzle. We sucked it up and did what
was right for the resource.”
To ease the pain, the Ministry split the cut, staging two 20 percent reductions over two years. Many dive crews dropped out, the fleet size reduced
and some consolidation of quota occurred.
“It was still a huge kick in the nuts, but it really helped the industry transition,” Stanley says. “Laurel Tierney and Rose Grindley were the two assiduous Ministry officials ensuring good fisheries management throughout that process.”
Pāua Industry Council chief executive Jeremy Cooper, a newcomer at the time, says the 40 percent reduction was a critical time in Pau5B’s recovery.
“For three or four years, we were pretty concerned the reduction wasn’t working,” he says. “Fishing was flat, catch rates didn’t improve and in some places,
they appeared to get worse.
“Divers working Stewart Island, stalwarts like John Hildebrand (Hildy), quietly worked on accepting lower catch rates compared to other areas.”
Part of the problem was an outdated Minimum Legal Size (MLS), which had not changed since its enactment in the 60s. The MLS was intended to protect juvenile pāua so that when they reached maturity, they would have two to four years to contribute to spawning events.
Scientists originally implemented an MLS of five inches (127mm) for Kaikōura – a size deemed appropriate and specific to the area. Regulators later applied that MLS
generically across neighbouring pāua fisheries, rounding that figure down to 125mm with New Zealand’s transition to the metric system.
That simple decision was inadvertently detrimental to pāua’s spawning cycle, slowing recruitment and the health of the overall population, says Cooper.
“We discovered it takes about five years, from spawning to surviving adult pāua, to actually change or improve population numbers.
“At an MLS of 125mm, pāua only had a year or so of spawning before being caught, resulting in fewer numbers of juveniles replacing the adults that divers caught.”
The other problem was that the pāua in 5B have some of the fastest growth rates in New- Zealand post-maturity. An MLS of 125mm wouldn’t support the spawning potential of
these larger sized pāua.
Cooper says divers all agreed the current MLS meant they were catching pāua too small, but no one knew what the new minimum size should be set at or what the end goal should be.
“There were many arguments and discussions amongst ourselves as to why we would or wouldn’t increase the size but in the end, we collectively decided to suck it and see.”
Divers voluntarily upped their Minimum Harvest Size (MHS) to 127mm at first, then by 2mm every year after that.
The benefits were multiple. Catch rates slowly climbed, pāua had more spawning seasons before being harvested and the fish were bigger and heavier, meaning divers were taking fewer individual pāua per tonne of TACC.
It was not long until divers were catching well above 130mm.
“Today we are catching at a voluntary 137mm and only taking 11 percent of our adult pāua population” Cooper says. “It has been a sustainable solution for us and a sustainable solution for the fishery.
“Our guys realised, if they got their act together and worked collectively, they could build a stronger, healthier fishery instead of just competing.”
Described by Stanley as a champion organiser, Cooper drove the establishment of five representative organisations, known as Pāua Management Action Committees (PauaMACs),
to engage in regional issues and management of the QMAs.
A national umbrella agency, the Pāua Industry Council Ltd, was founded shortly after in 2005.
“Everyone got together before each fishing season to assess how our ‘paddocks’ were currently fishing and to document the changes we thought might improve productivity and yield, like harvest caps and MHS variations,” Cooper says. “We also took a long hard look at ourselves and considered what sorts of behaviours we wouldn’t want to see in our industry.”
The subsequent development of a nine-point Code of Practice set out a collectively agreed industry protocol that was outlined in every PauaMAC’s annual operating plan:
Avoid removing undersized pāua from the reef
Use pāua friendly tools
Take care when removing pāua from the reef
Keep pāua damp and in the shade
Return undersized fish
Leave adult aggregations intact
Respect the rights of other user groups
Know how to measure your pāua
Report suspicious or illegal activity
Pāua pearl pioneer Dick Langdon says the conservation ethos of today is a far cry from his dive days where it was a mad scramble to harvest the black gold.
“Russel Keen ‘Rastus’ and I visited Cod Fish Island recently to a dive spot called the ‘shorty patch’ that was plundered in the 80s.
“When I heard the voluntary MHS had reached 137mm, I thought ‘Jesus, it’s going to be a long day’. But it wasn’t. We dived there for a couple of hours and couldn’t believe the abundance of pāua – and all between 125mm and 137mm. You hardly had to measure. It was pretty impressive considering how depleted the area was for a while.”
Langdon says the change that divers have brought about over the years is phenomenal, with catch near as good as it was in the heyday.
“For a bunch of fishermen to set aside their personality differences, work collectively and voluntarily take hits for the good of the fishery... it’s bloody impressive.”
The community has held an-important role in the management of the fishery too, as recreational fishing increasingly encroaches.
“It’s common now to see a group of reccies, kitted up in their wetsuits and heading out on their boats,” says Langdon. “They’ll all disappear, return with a feed and then three hours later, head out to fish again.”
Linesman for the island’s power station Chris Dillon is one of the devoted locals policing recreational fishers.
He says a core reason for the increase in poaching is because a lot of the island’s dive locations are out of sight.
“We are all just trying to do the right thing,” says Dillon. “If I see someone wandering up the beach with a bulging bag, I automatically know they aren’t following the rules. I often get out of my car and ask them to hand over their bag so I can tip out the excess and undersized pāua.
“The recovery is a real testament to the commercial guys who have got their act together, it’s just a shame all of that could be put at threat by the carelessness and cheek of some recreational fishers.”
With stock assessments deeming Pau5B as healthy and stable, industry is now directing efforts into fine scale management.
“Pāua fisheries are no different to dairy farms,” says Cooper who has a lifelong background in sheep, dairy and crop farming.
“It would be nuts to try and manage all dairies within a region as if they’re one farm.
“Some stretches of coastline have different wave actions, different seaweeds, temperature variations and effects from land run off. They need to be managed on an individual basis and at a very fine scale.”
Conducting research and establishing a data pool have been key in executing fine scale management.
“To manage it you need to be able to measure it,” Cooper says.
Industry has developed dashboards, allowing dive crews to see where harvesting has occurred, the average catch per season, month or year, the ratio of kilograms caught per hour and the number of divers that have worked in the area. Crews can then use that data to decide whether to harvest the area or move on to another.
“We have also increased our catch sampling,” says Cooper.
Harvested pāua are measured and the data logged to inform stock assessments, length at maturity reports and to build a picture of pāua growth rates.
“All of the data we are collecting will be used to populate a fine scale harvest strategy for improved fisheries management now and in the future,” Cooper says. “These harvest strategies provide a real time measure of productivity versus extraction. If the data shows change is needed, then harvest crews can implement an appropriate management decision the very next day to correct it.”
A huge amount of effort has pooled into supporting mother nature too, says Cooper, who emphasises that the industry didn’t just want to revive the fishery, but enhance it.
“Sometimes nature needs a helping hand to rebuild populations,” he says. “What we do with these struggling areas is grow juvenile pāua in land-based hatcheries until they’re large enough to be planted out onto the effected coastline – a process called reseeding.”
Translocation, another enhancement tool, has been successful at building pāua spawning banks on Rakiura.
Veteran pāua diver Rastus Keen had the idea to move adult pāua from high-density, slow-growing areas to those needing to be rebuilt. Pāua are placed close together on the recipient site to increase spawning viability.
PIC fisheries scientist Dr Tom McCowan has since been implementing translocation as a fisheries management tool for Pau5B, studying the suitability of several recipient sites around the island.
“The idea is that the spawning banks remain untouched by harvesters for several years while juveniles settle up and down the coast either side of the banks,” McCowan
says. “The research has highlighted the great potential for spawning banks in repopulating depleted areas.”
Implementation of a S.11A Fisheries Plan will be the next step for Stewart Island, followed by authorised management, says Stanley. “We think authorised management is the natural development of the QMS,” he says. “We have gone as far as we can with voluntary measures to the point where it would be difficult to get any more sophisticated.
“When a collective of quota owners identify measures that are good for the fishery and don’t impact on any other stakeholder, they should be able to take action on simple management issues. Raising the MLS, for example, or spreading catch effort, as backed by the ministry with regulation. Then it only affects commercial
It is these considered and collaborative management decisions that will cement the success of Pau5B, he says.
“The achievement in turning around Rakiura’s pāua fishery is something everyone involved should be proud of. From the Ministry officials of the day who adopted an intelligent approach to managing the problem to quota owner divers who trusted each other enough to work collaboratively and stay the course.
“Their legacy will be a showcase fishery, a classic example of getting it right.”
Pau5B is believed to be the only wild abalone fishery in the world to have recovered from the brink of collapse.