Paua factory manager Campbell McLay knows paua inside-out. The shells, he says, come in two distinct colourations, blue or green. The Asian market tends to gravitate towards the green-shelled variety, while the Americans prefer blue. Paua meat turns from black to beige during the cooking and canning process, before it’s exported – luckily for the Chinese, who consider black foods bad luck. Although, interestingly, dehydrated black paua is high in medicinal properties.

Fascinating though his livelihood is, Campbell doesn’t like the taste of paua. “It tastes like chopped up jandals,” he laughs. “I don’t eat my profits!”

Campbell is a director of Combined Products, a paua processing plant in Masterton. In Wairarapa, New Zealand native black foot paua (haliotis iris) are sourced by divers from an expansive area, stretching from Blackhead Point near Dannevirke, down to Baring Head north of Wellington. Each year, upwards of 100 tonnes of the large sea snails enter the Combined Products factory, where they are washed, weighed, shucked and sent to canneries in Palmerston North.

About 95 per cent of the produce is exported overseas. Campbell may not be a fan, but paua is a palatable delicacy offshore, particularly in Asia. Though the haliotidae family of gastropods are not endemic to New Zealand (paua is known as abalone in the US, for example), our black foot variety is highly sought after – as paua thrive in cold temperatures, producing a ‘meatier’, more succulent flesh. With several chilly ocean spots in Wairarapa (Mataikona, Flat Point and Ngawi are particularly plentiful in paua), our wild coast is well-suited to producing internationally-renowned seafood.

Times have changed, Campbell says, since paua were prized only for their shells – while the meat was made into soup and “sold cheap at the supermarket”.“In China, it goes for 200 bucks a can. The demand is huge. Although, there was a time when the Chinese government ordered officials to stop banqueting on abalone – which made things a bit difficult.”

Campbell became involved in the paua industry in the late 90s, starting as a processor at Combined Products, then working his way through the ranks. He says the industry faces several challenges. For example, in order to ensure the survival of the paua population, the Ministry for Primary Industries has enforced strict quotas on commercial paua fisheries. The current quota for the area in which Combined Products operates is limited to 122 tonnes per year. Campbell says managing a market “screaming out” for paua with environmental responsibilities is “a balancing act”.

“We have to be careful with how much we take from each place. That’s a challenge, as some areas have better quality paua than others. Some places get bigger swells, so the paua are more mobile. And those ones tend to be more muscular and meatier. But, we have to spread our catch out – otherwise, we’re pillaging the one spot.”

Another challenge is weather. The best time for divers to collect paua is following a nor’wester, when the seas are calm. “Paua is particularly in demand around Chinese New Year, but there was one year we couldn’t get the divers in the water because of the weather. But, we can’t put our divers’ lives at risk.”

Also difficult is the ugly “competition” from paua poachers, looking to score a pretty penny on the black market. At one point, Campbell says, poachers had been sending “whole phone boxes full” over to Asia. Although, better monitoring of the seafood black market in some jurisdictions provides relief.

Campbell says his business has boosted compliance measures to ensure paua production in Wairarapa remains sustainable – especially ensuring catch limits are complied with and any juvenile or undersized paua are returned to the water, so they can reproduce. “What we take needs to be replaced. Compliance can be expensive and a necessary evil, but sustainability is key.”

Taxing though the industry is, Campbell wouldn’t be anywhere else – and says the people are the best part. “I’ve got a great group of workers at the factory. It’s a great atmosphere – lots of laughing and singing.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh- Hall