International Abalone Society – IAS2023 symposium

Graeme Sinclair doing what he does best

 In February, the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) hosted the 2023 International Abalone Symposium, the major event on the world abalone (pāua ) calendar, which is held every three years. Quite an honour and a responsibility that AUT took on and they did a brilliant job.

The conference was opened on behalf of the New Zealand government by Hon. Rino Tirikatene in his role as Minister for Trade & Export Growth and to cover for Oceans and Fisheries Minister, Hon. Stuart Nash, who had his hands full with Cyclone Gabrielle smashing his electorate.

Auckland chefs prove that NZ paua is the best tasting abalone in the world”

Over 220 delegates from 15 countries attended and saw 90 presentations on abalone aquaculture, wild harvest, fisheries science, cultural and indigenous knowledge and more. Also included were field trips to places like the Leigh Marine reserve, Kaikoura earthquake affected pāua fishery areas and the Ocean Beach Aquaculture Park near Bluff.

Alaska Abalone under water Photo from the Pinto Abalone presentation

Also on hand were trade stands, including local legends from Wettie who managed to sell top New Zealand dive gear to overseas scientists and fisheries managers… well done Darren !

"Natives preparing a meal from the sea" Original print, drawn by Jean Piron in 1817

There was a wealth of stuff to learn. Here are just three of the presentations relevant to pāua that caught my attention;

The cultural and indigenous knowledge session

Bryan Denny is a lutruwita (the indigenous name for Tasmania ) aboriginal abalone diver operating out of Southport. He outlined the 40,000 years his “sea country” people had been gathering shellfish, especially netepa, abalone. Also an interesting government move to recognise aboriginal fishing in the modern era.

Abalone growing platform Photo from the WeiWei presentation

Seafood diving was all done by women in pre European lutruwita and very good divers they were.

Early French explorer Labillardiere recorded indigenous women divers as being “excellent swimmers who could stay under the water for a long time..”, some early settler observers noted aboriginal divers as doing dives of 3 -4 minutes.

Chinese farmed abalone Photo from the WeiWei presentation

The diver women gathered abalone, crayfish and other edible molluscs. This correlates with the fact that traditional divers in Japan and South Korea were, and still are, women.

A global perspective

International Abalone Society stalwart, Prof. Peter Cook, updated the figures for world abalone production with some startling numbers. Wild harvest abalone production has again fallen slightly to a bit over 5000 tonne. In the seventies it was about 20,000 tonne. Where do we sit ?

Alaskian Abalone at low tide Photos from the Pinto Abalone presentation

New Zealand production at just under 800 mt means we are now one of the last major abalone wild harvest fisheries… anywhere. We are second only to Australia at 2300 tonne.

The next is Mexico at about 300mt. The remainder are much smaller, for example Europe, mostly France, at 40t.

What all of the significant surviving abalone fisheries have in common is that they operate a quota based management system.

An alarming feature Peter identified was the huge scale of illegal catch and trade in abalone. Estimates from the monitoring organisation TRAFFIC were that this is now around 7000 mt of illegal catch in play. A big part of which is being stripped from what is left of the South African abalone fishery. He stated that no country is exempt from this, including New Zealand.

However the really striking thing is the massive ramping up of abalone farming, mostly sea based. World aquaculture total production is 250,000 tonne. Of this, China is the largest at 220,000 mt. The sophistication and scale of Chinese aquaculture is amazing. As an example, entire farm stocks in the hundreds of tonnes are routinely uplifted and shipped to cooler waters in a process colloquially known as the north—south relay.

Pāua frigid in the north

Finally, did you know that abalone occur in Alaska? Interesting in itself but, for millennia, the Southeast Alaska Pinto Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) was a key food source for the indigenous Tinglit and Haida coastal tribes. It is a wading depth species and seems quite like our yellowfoot paua (H.Australis) species in size and biology.

The Pinto abalone fishery peaked in the late 70’s at around 20mt, then crashed to the point where it is shut now to everyone: commercial, recreation and customary.

Locals are now working on fisheries enhancement and research to rehabilitate their fishery. Complicating things is the increase in sea otter populations, but that is another story. Of interest to us is the fact that the Tinglit and Haida have identified the key management measure as being not to just restore numbers of abalone but, more importantly, ensure aggregations of adults are in place. In New Zealand we know that the loss of aggregations leads to the “allee effect”, where adult animals are too far apart for the broadcast spawning to be successful, sperm and eggs are not mixing enough for fertilisation of eggs to happen.

The Tinglit and Haida traditions are that when fishing the “one in three rule” applied. Customary fishers would only take one in three adults from any area. Which seems to have anticipated the modern scientific recognition of the allee effect in sedentary shellfish species like abalone and scallops.

In future editions we will write up more of these interesting stories, meantime check out links the symposium on the PIC website if you are interested.

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