Tasmanian wild-caught abalone diver tells of the dangers of the deep

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 5:42am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 6:02am

Glen Shackcloth has one of the best office views in Australia - if not the world. In the morning, he'll make a cup of tea and look out across a sweep of ocean on Bruny Island, Tasmania. The size and direction of swells help tell him when it's time to get to work. Unfortunately, that work can be cold, wet and sometimes very dangerous.

As a seasoned abalone diver Shackcloth knows how to assess the ocean the way an accountant reads a balance sheet. Abalone might look like harmless single-shelled molluscs that need a deft flick of a knife to detach them from a rock, but harvesting them takes a trained eye to factor in the risks - from strong currents to sharks.

Australia is the only country recommended by WWF Hong Kong as a sustainable source of wild-caught abalone. Wild abalone is under threat of extinction due to overfishing. In South Africa, triad gangs are allegedly paying poachers to smuggle tonnes of illegally harvested abalone. Australia's tiny state of Tasmania is the country's biggest source - bringing in almost 2,000 tonnes a year - or about a quarter of the world's wild abalone. Most of it is sent fresh to Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland.

Diving for wild abalone is year-round, but demand starts to increase around this time of year as processors and suppliers start to prepare for Lunar New Year. The luxury food is prized for its delicacy and symbolism of good fortune.

Anyone in Tasmania can wade into shallow waters and prise up to 10 abalone off rocks to take home. But with abalone selling for an average of around A$100 a kilo (HK$700), it's much more regulated for commercial divers. "It's like swimming around picking up $50 bills," says Caleb Gardner, associate professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. Without restriction on hauls it could take decades for an area to recover, says Gardner.

Shackcloth is well aware of the rules. He has to juggle them as well as nature's demands. The diver lives with his family in a town 20 minutes outside of Hobart and comes to his beach house at Adventure Bay on his beloved Bruny Island when diving conditions are favourable. Bruny Island has long stretches of rugged, white-sand beaches that teem with wildlife, including a penguin rookery.

Shackcloth dives all over Tasmania. Most of the state's abalone is black lip, but small hauls of the more full-flavoured green lip can be found in the north. The state is broken into five zones, with catch and size limits set by the government in each zone every year depending on the health of the ecosystem. Divers must own or lease a licence which comes with its own haul restrictions. They must also have a GPS logger that records their movements as well as a log of how deep they dive.

The past few decades have become much tougher on divers as demand for fresh abalone far outpaces canned. "Back in the 1980s it was about 90 per cent processed and 10 per cent live, and now it's the other way around," says Shackcloth. Divers could once bring in as much as possible on good days to pass on to the processors who could stockpile. "Now you have this supply and demand that seesaws back and forwards, and it's just getting harder and harder to plan."

This means divers have to take more risks when high demand collides with bad weather. "The longest day I've ever done was nine hours underwater," he says. "I was exhausted by the end of that. We only had a two-day weather window; we had orders for the fish, bills to pay. We just had to soldier on." A good day on the east coast could bring in 300 kilos and up to a tonne on the more challenging west coast, when conditions allow.

Sharks are a constant threat. "Shark numbers are increasing, sightings are far more common," he says.

In October, an abalone diver was attacked by a shark in Western Australia, narrowly escaping with serious injuries. It was his second attack. Shackcloth has felt the beady eyes of sharks on him, too. "I've had to get out of the water because they're circling too inquisitively."

Despite being a strong swimmer, Shackcloth has also nearly drowned. Diving up north in the Bass Strait his air hose became tangled with another diver pulling him under when the boat moved forward.

Shackcloth dives up to 100 days a year, either on day trips or stints out at sea, but that's not where the job ends. "You end up diving two or three days but you've actually spent two or three days either side preparing and unloading. There's a lot more that goes on before and after."

While the wild-caught abalone industry is strong in Australia, it's still at threat from farmed ventures. Abalone is cultivated on land or near the ocean in tanks or nets and can often be cheaper and grown to specific sizes. Smaller, so-called cocktail abalone is prized in China as it's cost-effective for each diner to be given an individual serving. Wild-caught are bigger to ensure they keep the breeding cycle going. China is making a big push into farmed abalone, which has been given the green light by WWF Hong Kong.

That's why the wild abalone industry is making a push to promote the health factors of wild-caught. They've also introduced the NanoTag system in which small metallic tags on abalone that appear under ultraviolet light ensure the product is genuine, says Dean Lisson, chief executive of the Tasmanian Abalone Council. The council has also announced a 10 per cent drop in the number of abalone that can be caught next year to ensure sustainability. "We're pretty confident this will probably be the last significant reduction in quota for quite some time," says Lisson.

Shackcloth will continue to dive his way around Tasmania, particularly around his idyllic spot on Adventure Bay. "I just never get sick of it," he says, looking out to the ocean.


How to identify sustainable sources

WWF Hong Kong have created a traffic light system to identify sustainable sources of seafood

Green light (recommended for sustanability)

Wild-caught from Australia

Farmed from China

Yellow light (think twice)

Wild-caught from South Africa

Source: WWF Hong Kong, Seafood Guide