Commercial diving for abalone began in the early 1960s. In 1968 a licensing system was introduced. Nowadays the commercial fishery of abalone produces a high-value product worth millions of dollars a year. The fishery is managed through a set of quotas set each year to ensure the fishery’s long-term sustainability.
The commercial fishery harvest method is a single diver working off a ‘hookah’ (surface-supplied breathing apparatus) using an abalone ‘iron’ to prise the shellfish off rocks. Abalone divers operate from small fishing vessels.
Most of the product is exported either canned or frozen to Hong-Kong/China, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Japan.
The main management measures in place are total allowable commercial catches (TACCs) and minimal legal sizes.
For greenlip and brownlip abalone, a minimum legal size of 140 mm applies. The legal minimum size for Roe's abalone is 60 mm throughout most of the commercial fishery but is larger in some areas. For example, in the Perth metropolitan area, a legal minimum size of 70 mm applies.
The commercial abalone fishery is divided into eight management areas:
Area 1 – WA/SA border to Point Culver;
Area 2 – Point Culver to Shoal Cape;
Area 3 – Shoal Cape to Busselton Jetty;
Area 4 – Busselton Jetty to WA/NT border;
Area 5 – Shoal Cape to Cape Leeuwin;
Area 6 – Cape Leeuwin to Cape Bouvard;
Area 7 – Cape Bouvard to Moore River; and
Area 8 – Moore River to WA/NT border.
Greenlip and brownlip abalone are taken in Areas 1 – 3, while Roe's abalone are taken in Areas 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8. An annual TACC is set for each species taken in each area.
The TACC is allocated to licence holders in the form of transferable units of entitlement. A minimum number of units must be associated with each licence. We can also issue new licences if prospective licensee can secure at least the minimum unit holding from existing licensees. This means that the number of licences in the fishery can vary over time, but the total catch remains constrained by the TACC.
In response to declining wild stock populations in other areas in the world and high market prices an abalone aquaculture industry has been created in WA.
Abalone are naturally adapted to turbulent open sea conditions and therefore can only be held in circulating, high quality, well-oxygenated sea water. In land-based abalone aquaculture, high quality oceanic water is pumped and reticulated to a system that mimics a reef structure, such as plastic trays or concrete raceways.
Abalone farmers obtain broodstock from the wild and reproduce them under controlled conditions in a hatchery. Planktonic larval stage abalone filter-feed on microalgae and then settle on hatchery plates. A slimy film of microscopic diatoms is grown on these plates as a food source for the juvenile abalone.
Farmed abalone reared using aquaculture techniques are not subject to size or quota restrictions, so businesses can expand to meet market needs.
Abalone farming is considered to have a relatively low environmental impact. The industry is managed by strict guidelines. Also stringent water quality monitoring programs, approved by the Environmental Protection Authority, are needed as a condition on abalone licences.