The Tasmanian Abalone Fishery

A Personal History


A J Harrison



Part I 1963-1985



In 1964 I gave up my position as a science teacher and joined the Fisheries Division of the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture. Following a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry into the scallop fishery the Government decided that Tasmanian Fisheries should have its own research program and that was me. Although I was specifically appointed to work on scallops I was soon summoned to the Director’s office where Frank Hicks said ‘What do you know about abalone?’

Forewarned by my immediate superior, the admirable Roy Huon Scott, I had just had time to find a copy of Keith Cox’s monograph on the Californian abalone fishery that I had previously stumbled across in the Division’s store. With some study over lunch I was able to sound credible in a meeting where the sum total of all our knowledge on the subject was next to nothing. I left the meeting with the instruction to ‘do something about this new form of fishing’.

An important source of food but a troublesome fishery

Before that meeting in 1964 other Tasmanians the value of abalone. Although it was beneath the dignity of men, aboriginal women dived for abalone long before white settlement. Carrying a grass basket hung around theirs necks they dived in quite deep water and prised the shellfish from the rocks with a wooden chisel. Whilst still in the shell the abalone was roasted on the coals of the cooking fire. Shellfish was a major component of coastal tribes. Those along the east coast called the abalone paraganna, those in the south referred to it as teeoonah. Colonial Tasmanians apparently took little interest in the abalone other than to christen the large shelled snail, the mutton fish. Despite having a keen interest in other shellfish it seems their early attempts to prepare the it often resulted in a rather tasteless and tough lump of meat. Hence the name.

George Meredith described to his wife in March 1823 how ‘he was much disappointed in the nature and flavour’ of mutton fish. ‘I boiled them purposely to get them in the best state.’ En route from Swansea to Hobart his boat had taken shelter for the night and next morning ‘were honoured by the visit of six black ladies who caught us Crawfish and Mutton fish in adundance in return for bread we gave them — you would be much amused to see them swim and dive. Although I do not think you would easily reconcile yourself to the open display of their charms.’

Cox describes how the Californian fishery grew from the arrival of Chinese gold miners and I wondered whether there was a similar experience in Australia. The first Chinese arrived in Tasmania in 1830 many years before the discovery of gold in either California or Australia, but many more arrived after 1852. The population was never large but up to 1500 lived here in the 1880s. Most were involved with tin mining in the northeast but some took an interest in fishing. Ah Yow arrived from Melbourne in June 1872 to establish a fishing station and fish curing depot at Ilfracombe on the Tamar. Kwok Sing caught and distributed fish among the north-east community. In 1860 Ling Chew set up a fishing station ‘near the mouth of the Derwent’ to fish for crayfish that were dried and sent to the goldfields in Victoria.

There were also some Chinese involved in whaling and I suspect that it was this group who began the first commercial harvesting of abalone. Shore based whalers had stations all around the south east coast of Tasmania including on both Maria and Schouten Islands. The Chinese had begun an abalone fishery on the east coast before 1876. Messers Young, Sing and Chan fished for abalone around Maria Island, dried the flesh and also sent it to the miners in Victoria. Most of the Chinese were Cantonese but Thomas Dunbabin, whose father held the lease on the Island, said these three were tall northerners. Their promising business was snuffed out when the Victorian Government imposed punitive inter-colonial tariffs but their pioneering efforts are remembered by the name Chinaman’s Bay — the site of their fishery. Dunbabin says Sing married Fanny Skinner. In fact her marriage in Hobart in November 1875 was to Ah-Sin Yung who is described as a fisherman on the marriage certificate, Yung was then 43 years old, Fanny was not yet 16. The couple lived on the Maria Island until Yung died around 1897. Yung and Fanny had five sons and two daughters on Maria Island between 1877 and 1892. Most of the births were registered by the Police constable at Triabunna who would occasionally visit the Maria and note that Ah-Sin and Fanny (sometimes called Annie) had another child. By 1899 Fanny had moved to Triabunna and had her eighth child Tasman. His father was Robert Castle who Fanny married in 1902. She died there in June 1915 and I suspect that there are some living relatives of this pioneer of the industry.

It was not until researching this history that I discovered my relationship with that original Chinese abalone diver. For his Fanny Yung (nee Skinner) was my great grandmother’s sister. Amongst the first places where I investigated the growth of abalone was the place where he began the first commercial fishery nearly 100 years before. There are reports that another of the Chinese moved from Maria Island to Dunalley late in the 1890s and dried, cured and exported abalone from Pancake Bay, now known as Little Chinaman’s bay.

Around 1874 three other Chinese mined tin on nearby Schouten Island and they apparently employed the island’s children to collect abalone for them. Initially the Chinese in Tasmania were not subject to the xenophobia that bedevilled their countrymen on the goldfields. However this changed with the depression of the 1890s and the trade union movement vigorously lobbied to stop Chinese immigration. These moves led to an Act of the Tasmanian Parliament that imposed a tax 10 per person on Chinese landing at Tasmanian ports; consequently the population declined. Most Chinese returned to China but some remained to become successful merchants and market gardeners but their interest in abalone faded away. The 1881 census lists one fishermen and two fish curers within the Chinese community, but none were recorded in later censuses. Little Chinaman’s Bay at the mouth of Blackman Bay near Dunalley, was named for one of these abalone curers who worked there in the ‘late 19th century’.

The first Europeans to commercially fish for abalone in Tasmania were a group of Irish shark fishermen at Southport. When the Jesuit priest Father Julian Tennison-Woods visited Southport and he found ten families fishing for shark there and in Recerche Bay. They boiled down the livers for oil, sold the fins and used the flesh for fertilizer on their cabbage fields. When the weather was too rough to catch shark they speared abalone. The fins and the abalone were boiled and then dried by Wham Sing and his brother Teck at Southport and shipped to Hobart for export to the goldfields. According to Tenison-Woods the Sydney merchant Chin Ateak was prepared to pay 9d a pound in 1880 for any quantity of the shellfish that was ‘much esteemed by the Chinese’. The priest found that although abalone were abundant ‘it was too troublesome a fishery to make it a pursuit, except when nothing else could be caught.’

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