Why abalone is New Zealand's catch of the day

By Mauricio Olmedo-Perez
Otago, New Zealand

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Watch: The growing demand for New Zealand abalone

In New Zealand's southern province of Otago, a group of recreational fishermen are about to go on their regular hunt for shellfish.

It is autumn here and they will be diving into waters so cold that full-body wetsuits are needed.

But it is not just any mollusc that they're after. They are looking for a humble sea snail that has become one of the world's most expensive seafood items.

Blackfoot abalone is known here by its indigenous Maori name, paua. It is not the prettiest creature and could easily be mistaken for a rock.

But its unique black flesh and taste has made it a hot commodity, particularly in Asia where it is a prized delicacy.

Locally, a single abalone commands a hefty retail price of up to NZ$50 (US$43; £26). In some Asian restaurants, it would set you back more than US$100.

Natural defence

Image caption,
Former All Black Kees Meeuws is a recreational abalone diver

There are more than 100 species of abalone around the world, but the blackfoot abalone is one of the largest and found only in New Zealand waters.

Apart from their strong suction to rocks, their only other natural defence is camouflage. Strict rules are needed to help protect the species from overfishing.

Fishermen cannot use any sort of underwater breathing equipment and are allowed to pick only 10 abalone per day.

They also have to be of a certain size; the legal recreational size is 125mm long - about five years of growing. However, abalone can reach over 20cm long and live for decades.

It takes only minutes for the fishermen to spot the mollusc clinging to rocks in waters about 5m deep.

Within an hour of the dive, they have caught enough and in true New Zealand style, a barbecue is set up on the back of their truck.

The abalone is quickly shucked (shell removed) and cooked right there in the car park.

Among the successful fishermen is the barrel-chested Kees Meeuws, a former rugby legend for the New Zealand All Blacks. He describes abalone as an acquired taste.

"The texture is a bit like calamari, a little chewy, but it's got a distinct flavour and is more like a steak rather than a shellfish," he says.

Image caption,
Abalone divers face strict rules such as no underwater breathing equipment
Image caption,
Each piece of abalone has to be weighed and measured before harvesting

Sustainable catch

Meeuws is part of a group called Paua to the People, which last year stood up to commercial divers who wanted to harvest areas only recreational fishermen had access to.

Eventually the government decided to maintain the restrictions on commercial divers, which Meeuws and his group called a real success.

"We've got this closed area here, which has got an abundance of paua," he says.

"The industry knows that, they wanted to open it up to make their catch a little easier - completely understandable but at the end of the day if they go and take everything out of our coastline it's not good for the public."

There has been increasing pressure on commercial abalone producers because of rising demand from Asia for the delicacy.

Like recreational divers, commercial producers in New Zealand are also subject to strict guidelines such as only free diving. They also face catch limits but, unlike recreational fishermen, they can take hundreds of kilos in their quotas.

Lantern festivals

Nestled in the South Pacific ocean, New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of seafood, with its surrounding waters yielding massive lobsters, luxurious oysters and a vast array of fish.

Seafood exports are a huge business worth about NZ$1.5bn per year. By comparison, the country's abalone industry is still fairly small - only about 400 tonnes of the shellfish, worth about NZ$43m, are exported annually, largely because of the strict catch limits.

That's why some industry players are considering abalone farms, seen as a possibly lucrative but capital-intensive endeavour.

Image caption,
New Zealand abalone commands premium prices

The chairman of New Zealand's Paua Industry Council, Storm Stanley, says the strong New Zealand dollar has affected sales, but adds that the industry enjoys a boost at certain times of the year.

"Smaller export amounts go to Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan, but the majority is to China," he says.

"Most of that is to supply the Chinese New Year market and other celebrations such as lantern festivals as abalone is highly regarded as a special banquet food and often used in the gifting associated with these events."

Black market

Aside from over-fishing, the biggest threat to the growth of the abalone industry, according to experts, is the rise of a black market.

There are no official figures, but it is estimated that only two-thirds of abalone shipments were legally caught.

There are now specialised officers staking out New Zealand's coastline to catch poachers, who face hefty fines and sometimes imprisonment.

Technology is also being used to improve sustainability by having loggers monitor dives so that an overall picture of national catches can be formed.

Image caption,
Polished abalone shells are a popular tourist souvenir in New Zealand
Image caption,
Abalone shell has been used in Maori art for centuries

But people continue to fish for the blackfoot abalone because it is not just the meat that is prized.

The shell itself also brings in tourist dollars because once polished, its stunning colours make it a popular souvenir.

For the average New Zealander though, the cultural value of the abalone may outweigh its monetary perks.

It has been eaten as a delicacy since the island was first settled hundreds of years ago. It's also been used in Maori art for centuries.

As a result, locals view it as a national treasure and are likely to protect the right for anyone here to have access to such a prized and valuable delicacy.