Paua poaching is declining among recreational fishermen, but not among the more serious "black market" criminals, new figures show.
Wellington's coastline is the worst hit by a long margin, and was the site of 413 of the 985 prosecutions over the four years between 2010 and 2013.
Most "high-end criminal offending" occurred in Wellington, particularly on the west coast from Pukerua Bay south, Ministry for Primary Industries figures show.
"It's a major problem," MPI central region compliance manager Ross Thurston said. "We work hard to stay ahead of them. We're dealing with some hardened criminals, but we like to think we're keeping them on the move.
"Wellington's paua are hit because they grow here so well and it's relatively easy to harvest them."
The ministry figures, supplied under the Official Information Act, show the number of times people were caught taking paua illegally had decreased nationwide from 1824 in 2010 to 1185 last year.
Most incidents involved low-level offending and were dealt with through warnings or infringement notices.
Prosecutions dropped from 295 to 210, with convictions showing a similar drop from 266 to 147.
Thurston said the numbers were encouraging, and largely reflected a decrease in offending by people fishing recreationally.
The most serious "black market" offending, involving large numbers of paua, had remained fairly stable over the years, with about 80 prosecutions a year.
"This type of offending is the eternal battle for us. They are the 5 per cent of offenders who will never alter their behaviour."
He attributed the decrease to a growing awareness about the effects on stocks of taking illegal paua, and the consequences of getting caught.
An increase in the number of fishery officers from 136 in 2010 to 162 now had also helped, as had a rise in honorary fishery officers from 205 to 224 in the same period.
"Over the past five years we've been focused on intelligence-led patrolling rather than ‘willy-nilly' patrolling. This includes the honorary fishery officers, who in the past well-meaningly went on recreational patrols rather than targeted patrols to certain areas," Thurston said.
"I think there's also a stigma attached to this offending now, which once was not so strong. It's changed dramatically over the past 10 years."
The same could not be said of rock lobster poaching, with the number of incidents remaining steady at about 240 a year.
Only 10 paua of each species are allowed to be harvested per person per day. The minimum legal sizes are 125mm for blackfoot paua and 80mm for yellowfoot paua. This allows paua to reach maturity and breed. Paua must be landed unshelled so fisheries officers can check that all harvested paua are of legal size. When daily limits are accumulated, the maximum number of paua that one person can have in their possession at any one time is: 20 paua being two times the maximum daily limit of paua, or shucked weight (shell removed) of 2.5kg of paua. Possession limit applies everywhere, including the home. Source: Ministry for Primary Industries
- The Dominion Post