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Paua is a summer delicacy, and paua fritters are usually made from blackfoot paua. The blackfoot paua (Haliotis iris) species is endemic to New Zealand and is found throughout the country, most abundantly on shallow reefs.
''Haliotis'' means sea ear and ''iris'' refers to the beautiful rainbow colour.
Paua belong to a group of primitive gastropod molluscs known as abalone, of which there are 55 species throughout the world.
Three species are found in this country, including the yellowfoot and whitefoot paua, but the blackfoot commercial fishery is by far the most significant.
Niwa scientist Reyn Naylor, of Wellington, said scientific surveys of the country's blackfoot paua population over the past 20 years had been conducted by divers making a count while swimming for 10 minutes within a survey grid area at randomly-chosen places.
The new pilot programme, due to start in mid-February and focused mainly in South Otago, involves a different approach, which has long been undertaken overseas.
Seventy-two sites will be randomly selected and at each a tape will be run out to mark a ''transect line'' perpendicular to the shore. All paua 1m either side of the tape will be counted. The line will run from the shore until it reaches the reef, or the water is 10m deep. Three divers will be involved, and some survey sites could extend as far north as Taieri Mouth.
Diving work could well extend into March, if there were any weather-related delays.
Mr Naylor said this approach could result in ''more robust'' data being generated about paua numbers and, if successful, could result in a change in overall paua survey approaches.
The research is being funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries, which will use the resulting information to review catch allocations under the Quota Management System.
Blackfoot paua can grow up to 200mm in shell length. The daily paua harvesting quota is 10 per person and the minimum size limit is 125mm.