By the time I’ve woken up, the boys are already hard at work. Shane Nyhon and Regan Smith are hunkered down in the engine room, while Jake Brian is sorting out the frozen barracouta heads. Breakfast is eaten almost as an afterthought, and only once we’re on the move. It’s still dark.
“It must be gusting 60 to 70 knots out there,” Nyhon remarks from the helm, pulling his head back through the window and narrowly missing the spray of a wave breaking across the bow. “Keep your eyes open for logs.”
I squint. All I can see is rain and blackness. The pitch and roll were expected, but this morning, there’s also a rip tugging the boat in all directions, the legacy of three days’ torrential rain sluicing off cliffs around us. I feel my stomach repositioning itself, so I focus on the tiny light of the Charisma ahead. She’s the only other vessel game enough to brave the conditions, beating our 6:30 AM start by ten minutes.
The radio crackles to life. “Did you see those two boats head out?” the voice says. “They’re not going out fishing in this, are they?”
But we are. It’s April Fool’s Day, auspiciously also the start of the crayfish season, and the crew of the Southern Legend are off to work.
We’re on the hunt for Jasus edwardsii, the red or spiny rock lobster. Most of us know the creature by its common misnomer, crayfish. It’s not the largest of the four lobster species that inhabit New Zealand’s waters—that title belongs to the North Island’s green packhorse lobster, Sagmariasus verreauxi, which can weigh as much as 15 kg and is, in fact, the biggest lobster in the world. The spiny rock lobster can, however, lay claim to being New Zealand’s most widespread and common species, and for seafarers bent on making their fortune, it’s worth its weight in gold. Last year, the crevice-hugging crustaceans fetched a staggering $184 million in export revenue, making the rock lobster fishery the second-most-profitable seafood industry in the country after green-lipped mussels.
For the past four years, 31-year-old Nyhon has been chasing his own share of the wealth. He started out as a farmer in Tarras, Central Otago, “but there was no money in that”, he admits. So when his father retired from lobster fishing, he decided to take over the helm. Now he regularly makes the five-hour pilgrimage from his home near Wanaka to Milford Sound, where the Southern Legend, his old man’s boat, is moored.
Recently promoted to skipper, it’s Nyhon’s second outing with his new crew—but already they seem like a tight-knit team. Twenty-nine-year-old Regan Smith has taken on Nyhon’s previous role as deckhand, bringing with him experience accumulated over 10 years. Jake Brian is the youngest crew member—at just 16, it’s not been long since he left school. As he pragmatically puts it: “I’m trying to find what I want to do with my life.”
The usual 20-minute cruise to the entrance of the fiord takes at least an hour. Firmly locked in the rainy bleakness of early autumn, the seascape is a far cry from the sun-drenched haven depicted on travel brochures. On the port side, a heaving mass of grey-green water yawns into the distance. On my right rise the equally foreboding mountains of Fiordland National Park. The only signs of life are small flocks of sooty shearwaters, and a stern-eyed mollymawk that shadows us for at least an hour. But I soon learn that it’s not what’s above the water that counts, it’s what lies beneath.
As Nyhon steers us towards a set of orange and black buoys that mark the first pot of the day, Smith positions himself starboard, a grapnel hook at the ready. His first task is to catch the rope and pull aboard the marked floats, and another practised flick of the wrist sends the line over the wheel of the winch.
It takes less than 20 seconds to mechanically lift the mesh pot—this one set at 10 fathoms, just over 18 m deep. Nyhon rushes from the cabin to help Smith methodically tip up its contents, and within seconds the large, rectangular trap is re-baited with oily barracouta heads and reset. Nyhon locks in GPS coordinates and heads for the next set of buoys.
Nine rock lobsters indignantly clap their tails at the bottom of a stainless-steel trough. Smith wastes no time and starts throwing undersized specimens back into the water. Young Brian is more hesitant, relying on the calipers to verify size. But he’s a fast learner and decides to give me an impromptu biology lesson.
“See these flaps?” he asks matter-of-factly, pointing to the pleopods on the underside of a fleshy tail. “These are small, so this is a male. They have to be at least 54 mm across the tail.”
In contrast, females (for which the minimum size is 57 mm) have bigger pleopods to carry their “berries”, or eggs.
While the boys check the rest of the pots in the first patch, I shift my attention to our catch, my gaze lingering on a particularly imposing russet female on the top bin.
She returns my stare in seeming defiance, the sharp protrusions above her stalky eyes twisting her expression into a perpetual frown.
She probably weighs around three to four kilograms, but I can only guess at how old she might be—there is no accurate way of ageing rock lobsters. Fisheries experts say that specimens attain their minimum legal size at five to seven years and, if they avoid being caught, can reach around 30 years in the wild. Other marine biologists maintain that the prehistoric-looking creatures—at least those held in captivity—might live up to four times that long.
Although this female has probably never been out of the water, she shows no sign of being stressed. Not only does her tank-like carapace protect her delicate gills from drying out, she’s in the process of slowing her metabolism, dropping both heart and respiration rates to reach a hibernation-like state. Given the right conditions—cool and damp, which it currently is—she can survive out of the water for several hours, I’m told. But wind, rain or sunshine can reduce this to a few minutes before she is irreparably compromised. When wrapped in wood shavings and enclosed in a polystyrene box with an ice pack (the standard method of packaging live lobsters bound for overseas markets), lobsters can survive five days.
The isolated, craggy Fiordland coastline is the country’s most economically valuable rock lobster fishery. In fact, CRA8 (the largest and southernmost of New Zealand’s nine commercial rock lobster fishing zones) produces 1019 tonnes of rock lobster per year—37 per cent of the nation’s total lobster revenue.
CRA8 stretches from the Catlins in the east to Bruce Bay north of Haast in the west, and includes Stewart Island and The Snares. The many offshore islands, rocky outcrops and fiords in this fishery create a habitat of cracks and crevices—which just happens to be prime lobster real estate.
In CRA8, a kilo of landed “fish”, as the boys refer to it, fetches an average price of around $60 and has been as high as $92. Multiply that by three-quarters of a tonne—a regular day at the office for the crew of the Southern Legend—and you’re looking at a daily gross income of around $45,000.
Not that they get to keep it all. A hardworking crewman can make up to $100,000 a year in wages, but the real profits—those that come from selling rock lobsters—go to the people who own rock lobster quota.
Shane Nyhon’s father seems to be the archetypal rural bloke. A well-worn sweater, the heavy eyelids of a man who’s been up well before dawn, and a couple of freshly plucked muttonbirds dangling from his hand for good measure. But his house—nay, mansion—on the outskirts of Wanaka, and a somewhat unexpected arrival by helicopter, reveal that Denis Nyhon is a man of considerable means.
“Investing in quota—the amount of crayfish you’re allowed to catch per year—is very much like buying real estate,” Nyhon explains as we sink into two well-stuffed leather recliners. “Anyone, not just fishermen, can buy it.”
Once you own it, he continues, it’s yours to do with as you please—you can subdivide it and sell it in little chunks, you can lease it out, or you can fish it yourself. It’s not cheap though. “One tonne of quota is currently trading at $500,000,” he tells me.
But his investment is worth it—20 tonnes of rock lobster roughly equate to around $1.2 million in gross annual income. In addition to the quota he owns, Nyhon leases the catching rights to 59 additional tonnes. There are costs, of course—wages, insurance for a boat worth a million dollars, fuel and maintenance, pricey seaworthiness surveys, wharf fees, replacement of lost fishing gear, and (for some) the transport of catch from remote areas to the processing plant.
All told, Nyhon’s 20 tonnes of lobster quota make him one of the biggest individual rock lobster quota holders in CRA8.
“Mostly I was lucky,” Nyhon admits. “I was around at the right time, and had the foresight to get as much quota as I could when the system was first introduced.”
The commercial New Zealand rock lobster fishery started in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1940s, when the United States started importing frozen tails, that things really took off. Virtually all of the increase in catch at this time came from CRA8, where fishermen were lifting almost 60 per cent of all rock lobsters caught in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The abolition of limited licensing in 1964 resulted in a second large jump in the number of fishing boats, with catches reaching a peak of 2500 tonnes two years later. Intensive fishing was not limited to CRA8—all around the country fishermen were cashing in.
“Every man and his dog was out trying to catch fish,” Canterbury fisherman Geoff Basher tells me. Based out of Motunau Beach, Basher fishes a 30 km stretch of coast roughly halfway between Christchurch and Kaikoura, in the area now known as CRA5. “Back then, there were no limits on how many lobsters could be caught, so people tried catching as much as possible and the competition was intense.”
So intense, in fact, that fishermen often had no choice but to go out in any kind of weather to avoid their pots being lifted by someone else. “It was like the Wild West,” says Basher, “except we were riding boats, not horses.”
The rules that were put in place were dodged where possible. For example, boats in excess of 40 feet in length were required to be surveyed on an annual basis to ensure safety, which involved costs to the vessel owner. The fishermen responded by building their boats to 39 feet 6 inches.
“In the 1970s, we had three hundred wharfies, four pubs and ten factories here and on Stewart Island. Bluff was absolutely booming,” recalls semi-retired fisherman John Hawkless when I catch up with him at Bluff’s Fisherman’s Wharf. His was just one of more than 300 vessels that once plied the southern coast.
However, the unregulated plundering was not sustainable, and by the late 1980s, the fishery had crashed. In a bid to reduce the number of fishermen, the government again changed its rules on licensing: only those who earned at least 80 per cent of their living by catching lobsters had their permits renewed. Two years later, in 1990, came the inclusion of rock lobsters into the quota management system. The coastline was divided into different management zones, each with its own catch limit, known as the Total Allowable Commercial Catch. Each zone was able to establish its own industry body and the opportunity to develop its own strategies within the quota management system. “Those who couldn’t afford quota were forced out of the fishery,” says Hawkless. “It was hard—fishing is the only thing many of these guys knew how to do.”
But despite the reduced fishing pressure, rock lobster stocks continued to plummet. “The system wasn’t fine-tuned,” says Hawkless. “To save our livelihood, we had no choice but to take voluntary quota cuts.” In 1999, the Total Allowable Commercial Catch of rock lobster in CRA8 was reduced by 20 per cent to 711 tonnes, and in 2001, it was reduced further, to 568 tonnes.
The cuts worked.
“In the ’97 to ’98 season, I had 170 pots and hardly caught anything,” West Coast fisherman Kerry Eggeling confesses. “Now I set less than half the number of pots and sometimes catch more than what the boat can carry. Two years ago, I caught my 12-tonne quota in just 29 days.”
The quota system, which allows the industry to catch rock lobsters all year round, has given fishermen like Eggeling and Hawkless a lot of power. Not only can they choose when they want to go fishing, they also get to decide what size classes they land and sell. This gives fishermen the flexibility to react to market demands, maximising the money they make. Wealth, however, comes at a cost—and if you’re a crayfisherman, it’s not always of the financial kind.
Even under the most benign circumstances, fishing for rock lobsters can be risky, and skippers who take to the open seas have to be on constant alert.
The hazards are numerous—submerged rocks, rogue waves, strong currents, even the wildlife are all potentially dangerous.
“We almost hit a whale once,” Shane Nyhon recalls as we cruise up the coast. “We were at the crest of a wave and it was in the trough. I don’t know which one of us was more surprised.”
Even something as mundane as running over a rope can spell disaster. If the rope tangles in the propeller on an inshore wind, the boat is in serious danger of being destroyed on the cliffs.
The deadliest natural hazard, though, is the weather. For up to six months of the year, gale-force winds of the Roaring Forties whip the ocean swells as high as six metres—waves the height of a two-storey building. Being caught out in these sorts of conditions can have dire consequences.
Kerry Eggeling left school when he was 14 to work on boats, and by 1977, he and his brother had their own. Eventually he took on a new fishing partner, his wife Faye, and they worked together on the boat for 12 years. “It wasn’t easy,” he admits. “We had the farm to run, and four kids on top of that. Faye and I were usually gone before they got up, so they had to put themselves on the school bus in the mornings.”
When they were old enough, their two boys, Raymond and Paul, followed in their parents’ footsteps.
Unlike the crew of the Southern Legend, boats launching out of Okuru just south of Haast don’t have the luxury of a deepwater harbour that leads into the open sea. Access to the sea is via the Turnbull River, which is blocked by a bar. “It’s too low to cross with a conventional vessel,” Eggeling tells me, “so we run 20-foot jet boats instead.” Even then, to cross the bar safely, the boat’s speed and the timing have to be calculated immaculately. When the weather turns nasty, the bar becomes a death trap, a fact Eggeling can sadly testify to.
“Paul and Raymond had been fishing for about three years,” he begins. “It was a rough day, not suitable to be out on the water. When they said they were off fishing, I told them not to go.” Disregarding their father’s advice, the brothers launched Raymond’s boat, lined it up and headed for where the white waters of the Tasman Sea were surging into the estuary.
Just as they reached the bar, the engine failed. “It was chaos,” recalls their father. “The surf was ripping into them from all sides. A boat like that is no match for an angry ocean.” Raymond panicked and jumped into the waves; Paul decided to stick with the boat. Unable to stay afloat in the churning water, Raymond drowned.
“See this ring?” says Karina Hawkless, pointing to her wedding band after she’s set down tea and biscuits. “It should be on the boat. That’s what a fisherman is really married to.” My eyes flick to the framed photographs jostling for space on the walls. Indeed, they all appear to be of boats. Even the family portrait has been arranged in such a way that her husband John’s newest vessel, Kar-Reece, features prominently in the background.
“It’s been quite hard on the kids. Reece used to cry every time her Dad went out,” says Karina, referring to their first-born daughter. “Once, she hid the keys to the truck so he couldn’t leave.”
While John is out fishing—often for a fortnight at a time—Karina not only manages the household but also runs the business. But as far as fishing wives go, Karina is well qualified—her mother was one as well. So she knows all too well the risks her husband faces. Part
of John’s fishing grounds are the notoriously dangerous waters of Foveaux Strait, between Bluff and Stewart Island, reputed to be the secondmost perilous crossing on the planet. In 2006, six muttonbirders, including two nine-year-old boys, died here when the trawler that was transporting them back at the end of the season sank. During the previous 10 years, six incidents in the strait claimed eight lives.
Back on the Southern Legend, young Brian is busy scrubbing the deck. It’s almost lunchtime, and the crew have lifted half of their 130 pots, pulling up almost 200 kg of fish. It seems a good haul, but according to Nyhon it’s only half the usual catch. The reason, it turns out, is the weather. “Fish don’t bite real hard when it blows a northerly, especially not at the back end of the moon. What worries me more though,” Nyhon adds, temporarily abandoning the helm to toss items plucked from the fridge into a diesel-powered stove,
“is their arched backs.”
He later shows me what he means. By being dragged through the thick layer of freshwater sitting on top of the saltwater in the fiord, the rock lobsters have turned into miniature Quasimodos. “It means their meat has turned fluffy, which makes it worthless,” Nyhon explains. But the processing plant, it turns out, isn’t taking lobsters over Easter anyway, so these ones will have time to recover in Southern Legend’s holding pots in Anita Bay.
Perhaps naïvely, I expected to be eating crayfish for lunch. I was wrong. “I’m not really too keen on the stuff,” Nyhon says with a shrug, and I later learn that not many fishermen are. Instead, he’s prepared us a “real man’s lunch”: sausages, hash browns, baked beans on toast. This is standard fare. Fish of any kind is hardly ever eaten; the boys bring out the rod and reel maybe twice a year, if that.
Fortunately, the Chinese have developed a much more discerning appetite. In fact, they can’t get enough of our crustaceans, importing 95 per cent of CRA8’s live lobsters and 85 per cent of the nationwide catch. On Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s ritziest and most expensive street, restaurant diners are prepared to fork out more than NZ$175 for just a few mouthfuls. But what is it about our rock lobsters that makes them so desirable?
Part of the answer lies in their resilience—arriving live after a long flight is crucial. “Until recently, China’s coastal communities, which constitute our main market, had no refrigeration,” explains Larnce Wichman, CEO of the Canterbury-Marlborough rock lobster fishery. “So the rule over there with seafood has always been that if it’s live and fresh, no worries. If it’s dead, don’t touch it.”
But for a nation deeply rooted in symbolism, the lobster’s looks are the clincher. “Lobsters are representative of the dragon, a symbol of power,” says Wichman. “To provide guests with lobster at a dinner party or festivity endows the host with what we would here call mana. Like shark-fin soup, it shows a high level of wealth and respect.”
Our lobsters have another advantage, Daryl Sykes, CEO of the New Zealand Rock Lobster Industry Council, is quick to add. They don’t have claws. “To the Chinese, claws represent the severing of relationships—obviously not something you want to dish up at a wedding or when trying to impress prospective clients.”
Sykes is quick to point out that we are not the only country to export rock lobsters—so does Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Cuba, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea, to name a few. But he is relaxed, because he believes that quality speaks for itself. “Being a coldwater species, our lobster has a sweet, white flesh when cooked, and a clean, pearlescent, flavoursome raw meat when used for sashimi,” he tells me. “Quite simply, we offer a superior product.” The other advantage we have, he points out, is that fishermen can keep catching until they reach their quota limit. Many choose to stagger their catch throughout the year, timing their hauls based on market demand. Each April, the slate is wiped clean and the new quota year begins. Says Sykes: “This means we can deliver consistently over time, in a timely manner, and in a range of sizes that the markets prefer.”
But CRA8’s rock lobster fishermen realise their livelihood depends on the careful management of their stock. Although the Ministry of Fisheries is the main regulatory body, policing also happens at the grassroots level.
Kerry Eggeling and other members of the West Coast Marine Protection Forum recently put forward a plan for four new marine reserves to be established on the West Coast, to preserve parts of the marine environment for future generations to enjoy. CRA5’s Geoff Basher, too, sees the need for sustainability: “We’ve gone from being plunderers to becoming farmers,” he tells me, “and we want to keep it that way.”
As the Southern Legend makes its way back to Milford Sound, I can see the guys are tired. They’ve lifted 400 kg of lobster—worth around $24,000.
Shane Nyhon flexes his frozen wrists. “I have carpal tunnel, from lifting the pots,” he tells me. “The doctor says I should get my arms operated on, but for now I’m doing physio.” Deckhand Smith suffers from the same problem. “I have about ten good years left in me,” he estimates.
The other occupational hazard that affects the young fishermen on their long days at sea is loneliness. “You often go the whole day without seeing anyone but your crew,” Nyhon says. “There’s only so much you can talk about. You get to know each other so well that it’s almost like you can read the other person’s thoughts.”
Although they’re away from home for days at a time, both Nyhon and Smith manage to sustain permanent relationships with significant others. When I ask if they miss their partners, both guys shrug their shoulders, perhaps too embarrassed to say.
Nyhon is in his position at the helm, and even Smith now relaxes in the warmth and shelter of the cabin. However, young Jake Brian remains outside in thoughtful contemplation, unusual for a boy his age. Nyhon has noticed too. “He’s a good kid,” he says. “This job isn’t for everyone, but if he’s keen, I think we’ll keep him on.”