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 U S$100.
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. According to information available, there are three kinds of abalones in New Zealand, the most common one of which is black gold abalone. In fact, it was after it was introduced to China that the name gained popularity. Local people prefer to call it “paua” or "black foot abalone" and "rainbow abalone". Another two kinds include yellow foot abalone, which is also known as "queen abalone "or" Australian abalone", and girl abalone.
The solid shell of paua is accumulated with a thick layer of rough rock, and sometimes even with long seaweeds on it, which is totally different from the smooth shell of cultured abalones. Seen from its appearance, paua is definitely not an attractive species. After opening the shell, it can be seen that the foot of its meat is black, which is the reason why it is called "black foot abalone". Its shell is roundly oval in shape with fine and close spiral costae as well as low shell roof. The size of paua depends on water temperature, so paua is bigger in south New Zealand than the north. The sex gland of male paua is creamy in color, while that of female one is dark green. It is understood that paua generally lives in relatively cold rock reef area in shallow sea that is 1-15 meters deep and mostly in rock reefs within 5 meters deep, which is the reason why diving equipment is not necessary while collecting paua. Suitable water temperature for paua is between 5 to 25 ℃. If the sea temperature drops, paua will stop activity as if it has entered hibernation state, and the growth of its shell will also slow down. They begin to reproduce when they are 3 to 4 years old. Paua is very sensitive to external environment and very vulnerable. The best living environment for it is rocky coast often beat by waves with high oxygen content. New Zealand's paua usually keeps a distance from sea urchins and starfishes. Assea urchins with long thorns also love to eat seaweeds that are favored by paua, these two marine lives hardly live together. As for starfishes, they can be described as the natural enemies of paua. Apart from their strong suction to rocks, their only other natural defense is camouflage. Strict rules are needed to help protect the species from overfishing. Fishermen can not use any sort of underwater breathing equipment and are allowed to pick only 10 abalone per day.
According to current regulations of the Ministry of Fisheries of New Zealand, paua that is less than 12.5 cm long can not be taken away from beaches. This so-called legal size refers to the length of abalone shell rather than that of its meat. And it takes 5 years for the shell to grow to that length.However, abalone can reach over 20cm long and live for decades. In addition to size, there is also restriction on the number of abalones collected, namely, no one shall collect more than 10 abalones a day.If someone intends to take abalone out of New Zealand, he can carry no more than 20 abalones or 2.5kg of abalone meat. Once convicted of illegal fishing and trafficking of abalones, one will face a maximum penalty of up to five years of imprisonment or a fine of 250,000 New Zealand dollars. With such harsh management, the government of New Zealand intends to protect their submarine resources from damage and keep the fishery production sustainable. Paua collected in its producing areas must undergo rigorous quality inspection. It should also be submitted to New Zealand Food Safety Authority for inspection, ensuring that only the black gold abalone of the highest level can be exported. Thanks to special packaging techniques and the techniques of keeping abalones alive in air transportation, fresh paua can be delivered to major cities in China within 24 hours by direct flight. In China, paua can be bought in some imported food supermarkets, with the priceranging from 400 to 1,000 yuan for one.
It takes only minutes for the fishermen to spot the mollusc clinging to rocks in waters about 5m depth. 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. Paua does not contain any toxins, even its viscera (belly) can be eaten with assurance. Compared with other abalone species, paua has large meat andthin shell.The average weight of each abalone is about 600 grams, with meat accounting for 50% and belly accounting for 20%, which means that 70% of paua body is edible. New Zealanders like to make fresh paua into sashimi and eat it raw, or roast it on BBQ oven before eating. The meat of paua is tight, sweet and mellow. Different from other species of abalones, the meat of paua can either be soft, smooth and waxy, or be compact and chewy. Paua can be eaten in various ways based on the taste characteristics of its different parts. 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. 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.
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. 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." The New Zealand Paua has a unique appearance. As it perennially attaches itself to volcanic rocks at the bottom of seas in New Zealand, the surface of its foot is formed with a black film containing a lot of minerals. The compounds Paolin I and II and abalone polysaccharide found in the black film are considered to have a unique effect in preventing cancer and inhibiting tumor growth. The meat of paua contains rich polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins A, E and B12, selenium, zinc, iodine, magnesium and other minerals, which can effectively enhance immune system, lower cholesterol level, protect cerebrovascular health, and improve vision. It can well nurse and nourish people with weak body, drinking too much alcohol, or smoking to much. 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 specialized 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. But people continue to fish for the black foot abalone because it is not just the meat that is prized. The shell itself also brings in tourist dollars because once polished, its stunning colors 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.