Pāuā Recovery

April 2022

Recovery of paua fisheries after the 2016 earthquake.

Kaikōura pāuā fishermen and stakeholders in the industry have had a long hard road since the devastating 2016 Kaikōura earthquake closed the pāuā fisheries along the uplifted North side of the quota area.  Yet an unfaltering commitment to a long term sustainable fishery and close adherence to the science and data have remained forefront of their decisions and advice around reopening the fishery. Five years after the earthquake, in December 2021, the fishery was reopened for a three month season.


The November 2016 Kaikōura Earthquake uplifted large patches of the coast along the Northern fishing areas. Scenes of devestation played out in the media with images of dying pāuā and sealife on the newly uplifted land. Fisheries management immediately stopped pāuā fishing areas along the Northern side from Conway River to Marfells Beach

 – an area that overlapped 2 different paua quota management areas with a commercial haul of around 60 tonnes of the delicacy. The area closed was one with a strong history of customary and recreational pāuā fishing.


Government money was put up to recruit scientists to assess the carnage – to the habitats, biomass and seabed.


Local fisherman Dave Rae was one of the first in the water after the quake. Dave is a seasoned pāuā fisherman and a stakeholder on the Pauamac3 committee, organized by the Paua Industy Council to represent local commercial fishing interests under the quota system. Dave and three colleagues they headed down for an informal assessment of the fishery a day after the main earthquake. Dave said while parts of the Northern fishing area were devastated close to land, what he saw under the water was positive, with the pāuā populations there surviving.


Kaikōura Marine Guardians (KMG) chairperson, and independent Fisheries Consultant Larnce Wichman echoes this. The Kaikōura Marine Guardians were established by the Kaikōura (Te Tai o Marokura) Marine Management Act and are appointed by the Ministers for Conservation and Fisheries to advise the Ministers on any matter that affects their local marine environment. 


Larnce and his team, including original appointee Ted Howard, have carefully followed the scientific data and surveys that began soon after the earthquake and continue today. Initial data showed the offshore fisheries were relatively unaffected, but the inshore creatures and habitats were decimated, in particular, cryptic pāuā - the juvenile stage of development. Ted syas, “the impact on the pāuā population was huge, because they have a complex life cycle.” 


Cryptics feed on coralline algae-covered boulders in water under 2 metres in depth, and need this zone as their home for the first three to five years of their life. After this, and when they reach sexual maturity (at about 60-70mm in length) they move further out to deeper waters. Initial data showed that, cryptic pāuā mortalities aside, the fishery had been well managed. 


Since 2016, surveys have been carried out twice a year. They informed how management would proceed and what might need to be in place to assure the full recovery and ongoing health of the fishery. In the end the pāuā and kelp forests have recovered well on their own. The lifecycle loop was ‘closed’ by the end of the 2019/2020 spawning season with cryptic pāuā back in reasonable numbers within the intertidal zone, barring a few areas where numbers remain ‘patchy’. This was a vital criteria towards the reopening of the fisheries to the North of Kaikōura. 


Dave, Larnce and Ted have worked alongside peers at their respective organisations to monitor the science data and to utilise it when advising the government with submissions around regulation and dates for the re-opening of the fisheries. There is solid agreement about the importance of ‘following the science’ to assure best practice within the industry. These organisations supported more restrictive limits on the commercial and recreational fishing to allow for extra breeding cycles/ spawning events before harvest. The industry has a long history of such measures around the country - over the last 25 years, for example, Stewart Island (paua 5b) size limits have moved incrementally from 125 mm to 140 mm. 


The KMG proposed an earlier opening time of October 2021, while highlighting, “Re-opening the Kaikōra coastline to the harvesting of pāuā, other shellfish and seaweed is not simply a matter of reverting to the recreational fishing controls that were in place before the earthquakes. Some parts of the coastal environment are still highly dynamic because of continued erosion of uplifted substrate and increased sedimentation after storm events”. They further noted that some shellfish and pāuā were now far more accessible from the shore and therefore highly vulnerable to localised depletion, and they cautioned, “It will be many years before we have a comprehensive understanding of how the earthquake has affected the long-term productivity of the fisheries.”


Dave, like many locals and stakeholders in the industry group, is strongly committed to creating and maintaining a “multi-generational, sustainable pāuā fishery” in the area. Pauamac3 recommended that p pāuā catch size be increased to 130mm, 5 mm above the standard minimum (125mm) requirement. 


The reopening of the fishery was sign-posted with new catch limits. The updated commercial limit, (Total Allowable Commercial Catch) was set at 23 tonnes (approximately 50 percent of the pre-earthquake catch level), with recreational fishers limited to 5 a day. The size was kept at the standard 125mm minimum. In the spirit of best practice and aiming to leave more, older pāuā undisturbed to allow more spawning events, the local Pauamac 3 members decided they would not remove anything less than 130mm from the water. Dave set his own minimum size at 140mm.


Like all commercial fishermen working with the quota system, Dave continues to use the MPI online system to log every catch (size and number) with MPI by midnight of the same day of catch. The data is supported by GPS data of the area fished, swell measurement and visability data. No such system is in operation for recreational catches, making for some gaps in the present data.


The December 1st 2021 opening saw a “goldrush’ with recreational fishers inundating the area. Kaikōura township was abuzz and anecdotal reports suggest days when up to a thousand people entered the water, with buses bringing in large groups from Nelson and other areas. By January 2022 most of the easy to access spots along the highway – areas where only wading was required – were stripped. Dave says, “People don’t realise the cumulative effect of their action”.


MPI Fishery compliance officers were out in force. It is acknowledged that MPI put “a good monitoring programme in place” prior to the limited season opening. Larnce says of MPI officers and honourary fisheries officers, “I take my hat off to them, they gave up family time during Christmas”, to assure catch rate and size compliance with recreational fishers. 


Dave, Ted and Larnce supported more restrictive limits on the commercial and recreational fishing of pāuā, with more rigorous regimes for monitoring recreational catch numbers and areas fished. The men acknowledge that the data from the post season opening surveys in February 2022 will be hugely important in deciding the health of the fisheries, and the management regime in the future.