Pablo Pita Orduna’s Blog: Shoes, Sharks & Abalone.

Pablo is travelling to Australia for three weeks to meet with Dr Jeremy Prince, the scientist behind The Barefoot Ecology Toolbox. Pablo wants to learn how to emulate this toolbox’s success when incorporating fishermen’s knowledge into fisheries management plans. You can read all of his blog posts here.

I awake startled by a terrible noise – something like a crane with serious mental problems after swallowing one of those first external modems. I slowly realize where I am and why I feel so terribly tired.

After one of the longest trips that one can suffer by plane, Jeremy Prince and Adrian Hordyc picked me up yesterday in Melbourne to drive for another four hours to Port Fairy; a short ride for them in this huge island, where distances are not measured in km but in hours of driving. Port Fairy is on the coast of Victoria, on the South coast of Australia. “The place to be”, according to the state motto.

I look out the window of the apartment to try to identify the source of intrusion. It is not dawn yet, but in the dim light filtering through the windows I glimpse a black and white bird, about the size and appearance of a crow. The damn thing believes himself a nightingale and persists, ggrrrrrrrrrrrrr-uiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-prrriiiiiiiiiii. I’m tempted to open the window and throw a shoe at it, but as far as I know, it could be the very last of a unique species and I do not want to cause an international incident.

Jeremy and Adrian come to take me to breakfast. We sat on the terrace of a pretty little cafe in the centre of Port Fairy, one of the oldest towns in Australia. During the short walk to the cafe, I counted a total of seven or more birds staring fearlessly at me. They are not so rare, one shoe would not finish them all, I think to myself…

Jeremy is supervising Adrian’s thesis helping him develop a simple and low cost method for evaluating fisheries, something that can lead to a revolution in present fisheries management. This would be particularly helpful for small-scale fisheries, which cannot afford the expensive traditional assessments. We plan the day while I fight with a slice of cake that could feed a family for a month. We plan to meet with Peter Ridle, a local diver who asked Jeremy to take a look at his abalone reefs. Then we will meet with other members of the Western Abalone Divers Association (WADA) and biologists from the Ministry of Fisheries. The divers will try to agree on a single position prior to their important meeting tomorrow. They must reach an agreement with the Ministry about their fishing quotas for next year. If not, the Ministry will exercise its sole discretion.

Jeremy is a professor of biology at Murdoch University, in Perth, Western Australia. He is also an environmental consultant specializing in the management of fisheries. But I’m sure Peter respects him more because Jeremy is also an experienced abalone fisherman. In fact he has just spent a month with his family in New Zealand, where he used to own an abalone quota. Jeremy has developed a visual tool for assessing the status of abalone populations based on his own experience as a diver and the expert knowledge of other divers.

The 500 hp of Peter’s boat has us flying over the waves and soon we reach the reefs that Jeremy will be evaluating. When he finishes his evaluation is my turn. The water is intense aquamarine in colour and is not cold. My only concern is the great white sharks. They are not that abundant, but this is the area where the largest white shark in Australia’s history was caught recently.

I will dive with surface supplied air, so my range of action will be limited by the length of the hose. Before I drop overboard, I look from side to side, checking for a fin on the surface. I dive -knock-knock, is there anybody home?

Peter asked me to turn up three large abalone. Jeremy caught some a while ago but does not think that will be sufficient. He wants me to try them and see if I like them. Because of the weights in the vest that Peter has given to me, I can only crawl along the bottom, but I manage to get an idea of the reef environment of the abalone. Not so different from the familiar waters of Galicia, except sharks, of course. I soon capture the three molluscs and get in the boat.

Back on land in his nice house very near the sea, Peter cooks the abalone, sautéed with garlic, parsley and oil. They need to be struck three times with a wooden mallet to make them tender; neither more, nor less. The flavour, somewhat vague, reminds me of cuttlefish. After all, they are both molluscs. In the Asian market they are worth their weight in gold, so the total commercial production is exported. Only the few caught by recreational divers stay in Australia.

While we chat after lunch I learn that the abalone fishery in Australia began in the 60s of last century. In the 80s it became clear that the abalone were disappearing, so they introduced a system based on individual quotas. Each association of divers was offered the exclusive use of the reefs in their area, in exchange for them to manage the resource sustainably. And they did. Especially the members of WADA.

Then came the virus. In 2007, an abalone breeder reported that the abalone in land based tanks were all dying of a disease that literally reduced them to a mucous lump. Soon the virus was in the sea as well. It moved like a bush fire, destroying everything in its path. Its death rate was almost 100%. Divers were astonished; three days after the passage of the front of infection in the reef there remained only shells filled with mucus. The absolute horror! The ocean current was carrying virus-laden lumps and infecting the nearby reefs.

It is a herpes-like virus. But herpes does not normally kill the organisms it infects, having coevolved with the host species to maximize their power of infection. If you do not kill your host, you are more likely to infect others. Jeremy speculates that the virus that infected abalone jumped from another species. And neither the virus nor the abalone were ready for it. The virus disappeared after three years, but has swept away almost all of southern Australia’s abalone. Only some reefs were saved from disaster, especially those located in exposed areas, where the remains of dead abalone were not retained.

The control measures taken ordered the closure of the contaminated reefs. Before the virus struck 300 tons of abalone were caught on WADA reefs. In 2012 they captured a mere 40 tons. Now divers believe that it is time to raise the quotas to a total of 70 tons. They also propose flexible quota distribution among the reefs so that fishing effort can spread following the divers decisions.

Tomorrow is the day. They will meet with the representatives of the Ministry of Fisheries.

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