Abalone was an important food source for aboriginal people in Tasmania. Europeans called abalone mutton fish and found it nearly inedible. However, when the gold rush brought Chinese immigrants to Australia they held the shellfish in high esteem. Chinese fisherman gathered abalone in Tasmania for shipping to the Victorian goldfields until a prohibitive duty was imposed by the Victorian Government.
Early European settlers told of seeing aboriginal women diving for abalone, which were cooked on the fire in their shells. However, despite trying various cooking methods, white settlers found the shellfish tough and unappetising. The first Chinese arrived in Tasmania in the 1830s, imported to work as agricultural labourers. In the 1850s the discovery of gold in Australia attracted many more Chinese miners, some of whom found their way to Tasmania.
As early as 1860 a Chinese fisherman established a business near the mouth of the Derwent to fish for crayfish. These were dried and sent to the goldfields. Later, Chinese abalone fisheries were established to harvest the shellfish, which had been prized in their traditional cuisine for some two thousand years.
While the aboriginal method of harvesting was to lever the abalone off the rocks, the Chinese speared it through the shell. The abalone was then dried and shipped to the goldfields in Victoria. However, there was no free trade between the various Australian colonies at this time and in 1872 the Victorian Government introduced a tariff on seafood. This was increased in 1875 which made it difficult for Tasmanian fishermen to compete with those based on the mainland.
By the 1890s, interest in abalone had all but ceased, not to be revived until the early 1950s. A commercial fishery was finally re-established in 1965. Commercial fisheries also operate in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Commercial fishers must hold a license and licenses change hands for large sums of money, or are passed down in families.