Paua, pronounced ‘Paw uh,’ is the Maori name given to New Zealand’s unique variety of Black Foot Abalone — renowned for its lustrous bluey-green and purple shell colourings. Such is the esteem of the Paua, Maori consider it taonga (a treasure) and a gift from the god of the sea, bearing delicious meat and fine material for traditional art. International demand for paua is high, with some Asian restaurants charging up to $100 NZD per dish.
New Zealand Paua
The Haliotidae family, of which paua belong, comprise numerous herbivorous sea snails, but the black foot abalone is one of the largest and most sought after. Using their large muscular foot, paua cling to exposed boulders and rocky ridges, positioning themselves to feed on drift seaweed and algae. Largely sedentary animals, paua move short distances to graze at night, and about 100 meters over the course of a year. In the wild, their shells become encrusted with marine life — which provides much needed camouflage.
Paua grow at a rate of between ten to twenty millimeters a year, reaching a maximum of 200 millimeters — dependent on food availability, water temperature and wave exposure. Gathering restrictions are designed to allow paua to reach breeding maturity, which occurs after about three to four years when shells reach approximately 70 - 90 millimeters in size. Breeding takes place seasonally with mature paua spawning during Autumn and Spring, when water temperatures are lower. Eggs are fertilised in surrounding waters and sink to the bottom where they evolve into a larva, before growing a miniature shell.
Catching Paua in New Zealand
Key paua gathering guidelines
In NZ, Paua can only be caught by free diving; it is illegal to dive for paua using scuba equipment, however the Chatham Islands are an exception to this rule due to the increased risk of shark attack.
No single person may have in their possession at any time (including on land) more than 20 pāua or more than 2.5 kg of shucked (shell removed) paua. On the Chatham Islands it is illegal to take more than 11 paua per person.
Paua must remain un-shucked until they are on the land side of the high tide mark so fishery officers can inspect them if required. It is also Maori custom to never shuck the paua in the water near the paua, it is said the whole paua pod will clear out.
Due to the November 2016 earthquake, fisheries in the Kaikōura and Cape Campbell regions are closed.
Paua can be found along most of New Zealand’s rocky coastline at depths of between one to ten meters. Preferring cooler waters, wild paua are most prevalent and largest in size the further south a diver goes, with Southland, Fiordland and the Chatham Islands harbouring the country's most prized beds. To protect the species, authorities have set various size and bag limits, as well as regional no-gather zones. According to the Ministry for Primary Industries:
“The minimum legal size for harvesting black-foot pāua is 125mm (shell length) for most New Zealand waters. However, the minimum legal size for the recreational fishery around Taranaki is 85mm. Pāua in this area often don't reach 125mm, probably because of the environment. For most of New Zealand, recreational fishers have a bag limit of 10 of each pāua species.”
Paua is considered a delicacy both at home and abroad — especially within Asian markets where it’s the preferred dish for new year celebrations. In terms of flavour, paua is like no other seafood. Salty and rich, yet balanced with a subtle sweetness, its cooked texture has been described as “somewhere in between scallop and calamari.” While it can be eaten both raw and whole, paua is probably at it’s best when minced or in a creamed form, where meat can be kept soft, savoured and/or turned into dark green coloured patties or ‘fritters’. Others prefer the meat thinly sliced and grilled on the summer barbeque with garlic and butter.
The following recipes are a selection of those sent to us from around the country; they reflect the range of ways paua is enjoyed around New Zealand.
As a species, Abalone shells have an open spiral structure characterised by a line of open holes near the shell's outer edge. The shell's tough internal layer is formed of mother-of-pearl, which can present an iridescent quality with a range of strong, changeable colors. New Zealand Paua is by far the world’s best example of this naturally occurring oddity. Interestingly, the colour quality of a shell is something of a local signature, determined by both diet and environmental factors. Chatham Island paua, for example, tend to offer up softer shells with a stronger presence of blue.
Though paua pearls sometimes occur naturally, nearly all those found in jewellery have been commercially produced. This is done by inserting a tiny piece of shell (or plastic) the size and shape of the pearl size required between the adult paua’s shell and flesh. After about three to four years — during which time the paua has secreted thousands of layers of nadar and conchiolin — the pearl is ready for harvest.