Just having a feed of pāua

We’ve had our glut of pāua and it was fun while it lasted. Now that the Kaikoura pāua fishery has been pillaged for three months over the summer, it’s time to get down to the serious business of deciding if and how we wish to manage the fishery so there is something left for our kids and grandkids.

It has been the norm for those who are passionate about recreational fishing to point the accusatory finger at the commercial sector for overfishing, but it is time to do a 180 on the direction of pointing. The commercial sector is highly regulated, reports its catch, pays substantial levies, and suffers huge penalties for any illegal activities. The recreational sector does none of these. Managers set ‘quotas’ for recreational fishing, but these are just guestimates and, because of the lack of catch reporting, these quotas are often massively exceeded.

This was the case in the recent opening of the pāua fishery along the Kaikoura coastline, after six years of closure following the big earthquake in November 2016. The earthquake lifted the coastline by up to 6m and caused massive mortality of pāua along much of the coast. Pāua stocks rebuilt over the intervening six years and the fishery was opened for three months over summer. Before the opening, the estimated recreational catch was to be five tonnes of pāua. It turned out to be between 35 – 40 tonnes.

There will be plenty of discussion about how this ‘allocation’ for the recreational sector could be so wildly inaccurate, but it’s clear there were no new or adaptive controls. Up to 1000 people fished on relatively small patches of reef in a single day. Basically, there was a catch limit of five pāua per person per day over the 90 days of the opening, with no enforceable limits on how many times a person could fish. The result was that instead of catching around 15,000 legal-sized pāua, recreational fishers took well over 100,000. Given that it takes around eight years for pāua to reach legal size after they settle from the plankton, that represents a substantial time lag for the recovery of populations.

The Marine Ecology Research Group of Canterbury University has been studying these pāua populations since the earthquake struck. We documented the recovery of the inshore recruitment grounds of pāua—the nearshore under-boulder habitats where they settle and live for three years before wandering off onto open reefs. We noted the vast numbers of large pāua that moved inshore and were exposed at low tide—a site unseen for many decades. Because pāua are group spawners, with males and females needing to be near each other for eggs to be fertilised, these dense aggregations led to great recruitment of juveniles and the populations built rapidly.

Pāua are vulnerable and need better management Photo credit- Shawn Gerrity

This was a real case study in what the removal of fishing pressure can do for pāua populations. Virtually all of those intertidal and ‘wade-able’ pāua are now gone, which is also a case study in how efficient humans are as predators. It’s known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, whereby a public resource is quickly depleted by those who get in first. It never leads to sustainability when human populations are small and is a real tragedy in an increasing population of fishers such as ours.

We frequently hear the refrain: “I just want a feed”. The question is, how big a feed does everyone need and how often do they need pāua, if we are to have any left for the future. The pāua populations around Kaikoura are still ok and can recover, but they will need new forms of recreational controls and reporting so that the fishery can be managed as an entire entity across the commercial, cultural and recreational sectors. We simply cannot sustain an increasing number of fishers on a finite number of pāua. Managers will need to be more creative and recreational fishers will need to make concessions for the common good. We have one more chance to get this right for the future of the Kaikoura pāua populations and so that our kids and grandkids can also ‘have a feed’.

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