1870s Chinese abalone fisheries in Tasmania

Dried abalone

Abalone was an important food source for Aboriginal people in Tasmania. Early European settlers told of seeing Aboriginal women diving for abalone, which were cooked on the fire in their shells.  Europeans called abalone mutton fish and despite trying various cooking methods,  found the shellfish tough and unappetising.

However, when the gold rush brought Chinese immigrants to Australia they held the shellfish in high esteem. The first Chinese people 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. An account of the Harrison family history tells of a daughter marrying Ah-Sin Yung (also known as Thomas Young) who became a partner in an abalone fishing business at Maria Island in 1870.

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.

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