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New Zealand Paua Shell

March 27, 2006 09:24 PM EST | Asia Pacific | Email to Friend | Comments (0)

We have a small group of shells collectively known as paua, unique only to New Zealand. The group comes from the worldwide family Haliotidae, which contains nearly 130 species from oceans in both tropical and temperate zones. These shellfish have been used for food since ancient times and have figured largely in the diet of coastal Maori. Most countries have their own local names, Abalone (North America), Ormer (Guernsey), Mutton Fish (Australia and early NZ) and Awabi (Japan) being some of the best known.

Paua is the most colourful shell in the world, other abalone have some colour, but not the brilliance of Paua.

There are three types of Paua:

Paua - Haliotis Iris
The largest, commonest and best known of our species. The shellfish is black and the interior of the shell has cloudy waves of rainbow colours with blues and green being dominant. The shells were used by the Maori to add a gleam of life to the eyes in their carved figures. Today we process them into attractive jewellery and gifts.

Silver Paua - Haliotis Australis
A smaller species readily distinguished by the silvery lustre of the inside, the cross ridging of the outside and by the yellowish colour of the animal when found alive. It lives in the same localities as the large paua but is not so common.

Virgin Paua - Haliotis virginea
A much smaller and rarer shell, this paua occurs as two subspecies, one from the southern areas and one from the north. Both are most attractive and strongly coloured shells. The shellfish is a dirty whitish colour and is not often seen alive.

Paua are marine monovalve molluscs that eat seaweed and live clinging to rocks at depths of 1 - 10 metres. They can be found around most of the NZ rocky shoreline. However, the larger and finer specimens, are found in the cold waters around Stewart Island and Southland. This is where we get the shells used in the making of our jewellery as their colour is more vibrant.

The holes in the shell are for breathing and reproduction. Starfish are the Paua's most formidable predator as they have learnt to suffocate the Paua by putting their tentacles over the breathing holes thus forcing the paua to let go of the rock.

Environmentally sound and sustainable management practices of the paua fisheries are in place in New Zealand. There is a quota system, which is strictly enforced for the gathering of paua by both commercial and individual fishermen. No compressed air diving is allowed in the filling of these quotas. All paua gathered must be at least 125mm (5 inches) in size. There are stiff penalties for those caught removing undersize shells.

Cleaning Paua Shells
Only some paua shells can have the lime taken off without damaging the shell. Some will be too thin and brittle and will crack once cleaning starts.

We have been asked on numerous occasions about cleaning shell using acid. Please note that we do not and will not ever use acid to clean our shells. We advise that you do not try this method.

In our factory we use diamond wheels to grind the lime off. If you do not have access to a diamond wheel grinder then we advise a coarse grade of sand paper around 150 grit through to fine sandpaper of about 600 grit. Use a wet and dry paper with plenty of water this will help avoid any dust. This will leave a semi gloss finish. If a high gloss is preferred we recommend the use of a buffing wheel with some form of rouge, this can be bought from a hardware store.

This whole process may take an hour or two for each shell and it will require plenty of elbow grease.

David Finlay is the co-founder of www.silverfernz.com an online shopping site delivering the best crafts and gifts from New Zealand.

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