Paua power

Paua (Haliotis iris) is one of the enduring symbols of life in New Zealand. Whether it's in our art, jewellery or tacky souvenirs, paua makes its presence known in all sorts of places. So despite it being one of our national icons, just how much do we really know about the life history of the paua?

Paua shells in New Zealand have an amazing array of colours as a result of their seaweed diet. (Photo: Nicola Toki) 

Paua or abalone are found around the globe, but nowhere else does the paua shell have the iridiscent blues, greens, pinks and deep purples as those found in New Zealand waters. These colours, sometimes likened to opals, are a result of the diet of the paua. These ancient molluscs graze on brown and red algae and bladder kelp, which furnish their colourful shell complexion.

Three types of paua are found in New Zealand waters. The most familiar is the great or blackfoot paua (that's the big one that most people catch), but also the silver or yellowfoot paua (a smaller one, easily distinguished when caught due to its yellow "foot" underneath) and the virgin paua, found in southern areas and the smallest of all the paua. Even though paua are slow-moving molluscs, they can certainly put on the gas when required, and they can wriggle and "shake off" an attack as an evasive manoeuvre. 

Paua mate externally, meaning males and females synchronise their "paua-watches" (somehow), and eject their millions of eggs or sperm into the water at once, like a big underwater fireworks display, where it mingles and becomes tiny paua larvae which go and hang out with the plankton until big enough to come down and start life as a rock-dwelling adult paua.

After World War II, the paua industry in New Zealand was just about the shells, and the meat was thrown away (much to the bloke's disgust when I told him that this morning!). These days, however, paua meat is an important fisheries resource.

At this time of year, paua features fairly heavily on the menu of many New Zealanders. I've already written about how much the bloke and I enjoy snorkelling for paua, and a couple of goes this summer have reinforced my love for finding and gathering (and eating) paua. For us, it's a lovely reason to visit the "other world" that exists in the rocky subtidal zone of the New Zealand coast, where we can also see fish, octopus, crayfish, wandering anemones and all manner of underwater wildlife.

Truth be told, I had a slightly traumatic start to gathering paua a couple of years ago. Determined to impress the bloke, I donned my wetsuit and snorkel gear and followed him into the cool waters of the Kaikoura coast. While he finned off in the direction of some rocky outcrops, I discovered my very first paua straight underneath me, out in the open, on top of a flat rock. This I saw as my perfect opportunity to debut my kai moana hunting and gathering prowess. 

So excited was I that when I dived down to the perfectly placed paua, I was too excited to remember to flick the paua from underneath with my plastic paua measuring stick (thanks MinFish!). Instead, in all my enthusiasm, I reached down and wedged my fingers underneath the edge of the (rather large) shell.  The paua, sensing impending disaster, clamped down like a car door shutting - with my fingers underneath it.  About six feet under the water, this was not ideal for me.  A slight panic, a wrenching of my hand and scraping my fingers, I floundered back to the surface - kicking my now husband in the face with my flipper as I raced to the top. So relieved to be back in the oxygen (in reality I was only under for about 20 seconds!), I took a great gulp of air and my snorkel must have been tilting into the water, so I sucked in a great mouthful of salty water, resulting in me coughing madly and throwing up a little in my snorkel.

This was obviously all rather traumatic for me, and with hair plastered over my face, throbbing fingers and water pouring out of my nose, I probably wasn't putting on the best face for the bloke. This added to the upset, so as my lip started trembling, he looked at me, checked I was all right and said "You're not going to cry, are you?"  "N-o-o..." I choked... "Good," said he, and off we swam to another likely-looking paua spot.

Paua gathering with the bloke and my grandfather down South. We measure the paua from the water, but we're always keen to double check. Paua on the left measures up but ended up back in the water to live another day. (Photo: Nicola Toki)

It pays to use a plastic spatula when gathering paua because all paua are haemophiliacs. So if you are using a knife to collect them and damage their sensitive undersides, they may bleed to death. Not ideal if you realise the paua you've just found is undersized. We have made great use of the plastic measurers that Ministry of Fisheries officers give out when they are doing their patrols. These spatula-like devices are great for flicking paua off the rocks without harming them, and they also have the 125mm measuremement (for great paua) notched in the side of them. Paying close attention to the paua regulations in your area is crucial for the conservation of this species. If we all want to enjoy paua for now and into the future, making sure we only take enough for a feed and not venturing outside the size limit is really important. I have to say, as a paua fisherwoman, I am horrified watching the dirty cheats taking hundreds of undersized paua on Coast Watch. Talk about spoiling a resource for the rest of us.

For Maori, paua have always been an important aspect to their art. Paua shell eyes feature prominently on carvings in almost any meeting house. For modern artists, gone are the days when paua embedded in resin formed ashtrays and wall hangings. Instead our clever jewellers and designers have found myriad ways to celebrate the beauty of the paua shell, and to continue to highlight its place in our Kiwi culture.

Thank goodness our paua art has moved on from the resin wall-hangings and ashtrays!

For the record, my favourite paua meal style is thinly sliced, grilled on the barbecue with a bit of garlic. The bloke is a champion at creamed paua, which I hadn't tried until I met him, and you can't beat my Nana's paua patties.

Do you enjoy the look or taste of paua? Did you know that ours are the brightest and most beautiful? Do you have any paua-gathering stories to tell? I'd love to hear them.

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