Deep water fishing
A visit to your local fish shop will only confirm the fine print on the supermarket boxes: most of the fish we are eating these days was unheard of a decade ago.
Furthermore, we are now exporting these strange-sounding entities (hoki, alfonsino, orange roughy, oreo dory) all around the globe. Fishing has become a major new industry, but the operation bears only a limited resemblance to the fishing that was practised less than 20 years ago.
It is unlike any sound I’ve ever heard. An eerie howl, like the whistle of a pelagic ghost train, it emanates from big winches straining at interminable dead-heavy trawl wire. At 3.15 a.m. on a lumpy sea over the North Chatham Rise it gnaws into my sleep with the relentlessness of a dentist’s drill, signalling another haul of orange roughy about to be landed.
We’ve been fishing since 10 a.m. yesterday, and the crew won’t be getting any rest for a few hours yet. Feeling vaguely guilty, I settle down into my sleeping bag.
Much later, as I claw my unsteady way up to the wheel house, the ship is quiet. Skipper Trevor Smith, a squat, comfortable Yorkshireman, is still there. “We’ve got 120 tonnes of roughy so far, and the boys have just finished putting it away. We’ll rest now for a few hours. John’s coming up to relieve me on watch.”
On all sides the sullen, blue-black sea stretches out to touch grey clouds. The wind is steady and cold from the southeast at 12 knots, the waves mellowing. From inside the cocoon of the Arrow’s bridge we can tell far more about our environs than the windows reveal. On the coloured daylight radar screen showers appear as blotches of red and yellow, more permanent than the transitory waves, but less so than some small blobs further out. These, I am told, are fellow trawlers, currently beyond visual contact.
A clinometer quantitates the ship’s drunken reeling (up to 30°, but mostly 15-20) while further back in the wheelhouse a small CRT screen displays our exact position — 177° 07.053 W by 42° 50.774 S, determined courtesy of the global positioning system. When three necessary satellites ply the right sector of the heavens, our position is updated every few seconds to an accuracy of mere metres. It is strange to be in the middle of nowhere and yet know exactly where you are. When the satellites are less auspiciously disposed, the system improvises by dead reckoning (at a considerable cost in accuracy). This and other computer-based systems are largely responsible for steering us — Trevor rarely uses the wheel at all!
Even more marvellous is the echo sounder/fish finder, a device which has become indispensable in deep water fishing. Its coloured trace can depict the whole water column or zoom in on parts of it. Sound is reflected not only from the seabed, but from schools of fish, shoals of plankton, bubbles, even sharp temperature differences. Some fish show up better than others. John, our versatile cook-cum-deck hand, explains: “It’s the air in their swim bladders that makes them visible to the echo sounder. Orange roughy have oil in their swim bladders, so they don’t give very good marks.”
A second, smaller screen, the net recorder, gives more specialised information on the net and the fish moving into it, using data from a sensor attached to the net itself. With these instruments a good skipper can not only tell how much fish he is about to catch, but also what kind of fish they are.
You’d think with all this electronic vigilance the ship would be invulnerable. However, Trevor tells me that last year they almost rammed a whale sleeping on the surface. “I’d just stood up to take a radio telephone call, and there, dead ahead, was a whale. I dropped the RT and managed to get the boat round and missed it by a whisker. When we got right alongside it woke up, and sounded.”
This type of hazard appears to be on the increase. Says John, “When whales are around their sonar interferes with our echo sounder. Sperm whales often seem to be hanging around when we are fishing for roughy. We reckon they eat roughy.”
As we wallow over a flattish bottom some 870 metres below, John points out some strong fish marks on the sounder. “They’ll be roughy,” he says. “There’s not much else out here.” The fish marks are in what the fishermen call ‘midwater’. Aggregations begin about 30m above the bottom and extend for a further 100m or so. Since the headline (top) of our trawl is no more than 7m above the sea floor, these fish are securely inaccessible.
Of course, the Arrow is here (along with most of the other heavies of the New Zealand fishing fleet) solely to take advantage of these dense masses of spawning orange roughy. So far, only four spawning areas are known in New Zealand waters: the Challenger Plateau, about 200 miles west of Wanganui, the Cook Canyon, off South Westland, the Ritchie Bank, off Gisborne, and this place, the North Chatham Rise. Of the four, the North Chatham is the most distant (350 miles south-east of Wellington and 70 miles north of the Chatham Islands), has the roughest seas, but also has the best fishing. Here the fish are larger and their density higher than at the Challenger, while the Ritchie Bank resource is smaller.
Spawning aggregations appear in June/July each year and, starting in August, the North Chatham battalion of roughy move steadily east, covering seven or eight miles a day. Later they head south, and by late September the fish are hundreds of miles away, in deep water somewhere east of the Chathams. Aggregations diminish slowly in size during the journey, and are fully dispersed by October.
Curiously, for the rest of the year orange roughy disappear from the North Chatham Rise, but can be found all year round on the South Chatham Rise. No one knows why.
Most of the boats on the North Chatham are large (70-100m). The smallest are just under 43m — a size which relates to government regulations stating that vessels larger than this have to fish at least 26 miles off the coast.
At first glance, 43m boats would seem to have the best of both worlds: the inshore and the deep water fisheries. Trevor is not so sure. “Companies are trying to make boats that can operate in many fisheries, and have processing facilities on board, all in 43m. Processing is an advantage, because by heading and gutting roughy you can fit twice as many in. It saves time and fuel not having to go back to port to unload. But you need a lot more people to head and gut, space to do it, and accommodation. Then again, you don’t want to reduce your storage capacity, so trying to cram all this into 43m means you build upwards. To me, some of these boats look a bit top heavy to be completely safe. In rough conditions they are pretty marginal out here, and I wouldn’t like to take them down to the subantarctic, where I reckon we’ll be fishing sooner or later.”
The logic behind the 43m rule (that smaller inshore boats should not have their fisheries depleted by big boats) seems reasonable; the consequences flowing from it are probably neither expected nor desired.
Since we’re essentially killing time to give the crew a bit more rest (they turned in at 8.00 a.m. after being up for 24 hours), we cruise over to inspect our largest neighbour, a 3000-plus tonne Russian-New Zealand joint venture, or charter, ship. From side on she looks like a small freighter, but astern there is that telltale ramp for dragging up laden nets. Charter boats are disliked by local fishermen, who claim that they take fish and jobs that belong to New Zealanders.
“When the extended economic zone (EEZ) of 200 miles was declared in 1978, the law of the sea treaty required that countries with fish resources they couldn’t catch themselves let other countries in. Well, we had an enormous deep water zone and hardly a boat capable of fishing offshore. So we had to let Japs, Russians and Koreans in to catch our fish,” Trevor explains patriotically — in his rich Yorkshire brogue.
“So that we got some benefit, government said New Zealand companies could have joint ventures with foreign fishing companies. The New Zealand company would be allocated or buy quota from the government for a fish species (quota being the right to catch a defined amount of fish — say, 10,000 tonnes of roughy — in perpetuity) but it could get a foreign boat with a foreign crew to catch some or all of their quota. The New Zealand company would get part of the catch and the foreigners the rest.
“This arrangement allowed New Zealand companies to be involved in the fishery without owning boats. It was meant to give New Zealand companies deep sea fishing experience and time to buy their own boats, but the companies have become wedded to the advantages of charter boats. They don’t have the costs of owning and running boats, and much joint venture-caught fish avoids duties. So New Zealand companies have not invested in their own boats with the enthusiasm that they could have.
“Big charter boats stay out here fishing for months without ever going into port. Quite a few boats transship fish to special fish-carrying freighters at sea. Big boats like this Professor what’s-his-name can process 100 tonnes of fish every day for months. It’s a lot of fish. They could catch more but the processing slows them down. People talk about the preservation of fish stocks. What about the preservation of the New Zealand fishermen? A lot of us would like to see the end of charters.”
The Professor Kozhin, which has inspired this discourse, sports an enormous wake of sea birds, wheeling and cawing behind for the best part of a mile. Seemingly every wind-borne wanderer of the southern ocean has acquired a taste for this new midwinter feasting. Orange roughy is not only America’s favourite fish. Myriads of cape pigeons, albatrosses, mollymawks, petrels and shearwaters banquet on the easy offal. A birdwatcher’s paradise.
Of course, most of the fish remnants sink before the birds get them, and some people fret that the resulting carrion is defiling the seabed and upsetting fish breeding. Dodging a hail of remnants from recently deceased relatives could prove distracting to anyone’s procreative activities!
It’s late morning and the deck-hands, after a scant four hours sleep, materialise on deck swathed in parkas, life vests and helmets. The net is readied for “shooting”. Gates at the head of the stern ramp open and the tubular back of the net (the cod end, in which the fish end up) goes out. Its weight in the water, and the five knots the boat is doing, are enough to drag the rest of the net astern.
The net is a flattened funnel some 80m long. The last part to go — the capacious mouth of the trawl — is fringed with a necklace of bobbins. Large, heavy perforated steel footballs weigh down the ground line and trundle along the sea bed, while balloon-sized yellow floats along the head line hold the top jaw open. The floats are made of 10cm-thick plastic to resist the crushing pressures 1000m down. Each costs $400 and the entire net is worth about $100,000!
As soon as the floats have rattled off the deck, the bosun leaps to the head of the stern ramp to give hand signals to the engineers manning the two main winches. Crisp choreography keeps him just out of reach of the net’s taut hawsers as they slide and snap across the deck.
About 100m in front of the net, large steel trawl doors are clipped on to the hawsers. As long as the boat is moving at two to three knots, these act as vanes, dragging the corners of the net’s mouth apart to form a hungry smile 14m wide and 7m high. The sea floor is 850m below, and feeding out the two kilometres of wire until the net can settle takes 30 minutes. Attached to the top of the net is the net recorder that enables us to see the ground and head lines of the net, the bottom, and that most heartwarming of sights, fish entering the net — all displayed on the cockpit screen.
With the net gliding towards the bottom the crew heads down to the mess for lunch and a video or two. After the meal I wander back up to the bridge, expecting to see the net already full.
No such luck. We are just cruising and hoping the fish are going in; none are visible with our electronic eyes. This isn’t real fishing for orange roughy, I think to myself. Reg Stephens, skipper of the 28m Wellington based Perseverance had tantalised me with stories of seeing great aggregations of fish on the finder, steaming back for 10 minutes or so, shooting the gear, and then juggling things so that the net dropped on to the fish just as it hit the bottom 30 minutes later. In less time than it takes to say “fried fish”, it’s full, and you just haul it in. I ask Trevor what’s gone wrong. He scratches his chin reflectively. “It’s not always like that,” is all he’ll concede.
Not too far ahead a bigger blue boat is heading towards us. The RT spits into unintelligible life and Trevor grabs it. My admiration for him rises. Not only can he smell fish through 1000m of water, but apparently understands Russian. More impressive still, he gabbles back. Surprisingly, the odd word sounds vaguely familiar. He hangs up with a smile. “My old chum George. He’s skipper of the boat coming towards us. I used to be George’s mate on that boat.”
“What nationality is George?”
“He’s from Hull, same as me.”
“You mean that exchange was some sort of English?”
“George talks proper like me. When Fletchers purchased the Otago Buccaneer and Galliard from Hull in 1982, three of us came with them.”
“You mean this much vaunted New Zealandisation of the local fishing industry, consists of a cartel of Yorkshiremen sailing cast-off English fishing boats? It’s as bad as the Navy!”
The Buccaneer cruises past a few hundred metres away. Although the Arrow is 57m, it is dwarfed by the 76 metres of the other boat. Weights give a better indication of size, Arrow weighing 500 tonnes compared with the Buccaneer’s 1600 tonnes. She is a ‘head and gut’ boat, whereas we are a ‘fresher’ — storing whole fish on ice for processing ashore. In fact, Arrow is the largest fresher in the southern hemisphere, being able to hold 220 tonnes of fish. Chilled roughy lasts no more than 13 days, so trips cannot exceed that. Head and gut boats freeze their fish and stay out a month or more.
We drag the net for three hours at a speed of about four knots. Fish marks are abundant, but always above the bottom, and we never see any fish entering the net. Trevor and Jim (the mate) decide the net recorder is malfunctioning. At the end of three hours, Trevor’s instincts decree that the net be pulled up, so the winches renew their struggle with gravity.
Several times during the haul alarms sound, warning that the winches are drawing excess current and are in danger of overheating. Three engineers are responsible for keeping the ship’s machinery operating. Engines, generators, winches, freezers, ice-making machines and all electrical systems are their responsibility. Inside the engine room, earmuffs are essential and speech impossible. Controls and gauges are clustered in a small annex that is supposed to be soundproof, but is far from it. A.bevy of attractive maidens smile provocatively from above the knobs and levers, company for the duty engineer.
Meanwhile, topsides, deckhands mysteriously appear and the bosun resumes his orchestration of the final stages of the haul. The trawl doors appear and are unclipped from the hawsers. Wafted up into the wake of the boat by a passing wave, the net breaches the surface at last. Bloated with red fish, the cod end resembles a gigantic saveloy wrapped in black mesh. Floats and bobbins rattle in and collapse on the deck.
The taut cod end grinds up the stern ramp. If anything is going to break it will happen now. The tension is palpable. Prudence suggests a bit of distance between you and the straining gear is no bad thing, but that sausage has a magnetic attraction. “Thirty tonnes,” says Jim. “A nice amount.”
It takes 30 or 40 minutes of tedious winding to hoist the catch into the right position, using overhead pulleys hanging from gantries. Since fish are released from the back of the cod end to fall down into a holding pound, the net has to be hauled well forward. While the crew disappear below, Jim unlaces the net.
To me the cod end full of fish looks overwhelming — a tightly-jammed cylinder of fish 2-3m in diameter, 10m long. Isn’t this the orange roughy that retails for $15+/ kg that I can never afford to eat? A quick calculation suggests the net full of fish is worth at least $150,000 retail! Pressure changes on this last rapid journey up from 1000m have killed all the fish. I enquire why the cod end of the net is black mesh, while the rest is green. “It’s coated in tar to help prolong its life,” Jim explains. “It’s not dragging along the bottom that does the damage, but the hard bony heads of the fish themselves.”
Closer inspection shows what he means. The large heads look to be sculpted from pink coral and are similarly abrasive. Their lips resemble paired pink files. Closed, the mouth looks pretty unremarkable, but once you start to open it, it gets bigger and bigger. Eventually, it ends up as a black pigmented cavern you could push your fist into. Way back there somewhere is a more modest oesophagus down which a thumb could scarcely pass. Teeth aren’t obvious. Maybe the mouth works like a butterfly net, allowing some imprecision in catching prey.
Don Robertson, head of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ (MAF) deep water fishing section, reckons the black pigment lining the mouth and gills is significant. “Down where roughy live the only light is produced by animals. Everything that the fish eat — shrimps, prawns, squid — is luminescent. Some of them give especially bright flashes of light when in distress. I think the black pigment quenches these flashes as prey is being swallowed, to prevent the fish glowing and frightening off other prey.” With the fish inhabiting such inconvenient depths, some of these puzzles will remain unsolved for a while yet.
Below decks, the real work is starting. Water is pumped into the pound and it carries fish out through a small door on to a conveyor. Abrasion in this slurping tank gradually removes the very small pink scales from the fish, and the water assumes the colour of diluted tomato sauce. As the conveyor passes, I help remove those fish that aren’t orange roughy. What is most astounding is just how few other fish there are. Ninety-nine out of every hundred fish are roughy, 30- 45cms in length! The interlopers include small rattails, deep water cod, a few small sharks, two or three oreo dory and barracouta, and a single huge bluenose. This hapuka-type fish is greeted with enthusiasm tomorrow’s dinner!
The conveyor ends in a chute down which fish glissade at high speed to the 30m x 8m freezer room. Since we left Nelson, three large ice machines have toiled to produce a vast amount of flake ice. “You’ve got to have ice of the right consistency,” the engineer tells me. “Fresh water gives ice that is too hard, so we spray a mixture of salt and fresh onto a chilled rotating drum. It gets scraped off as a fractured sheet that is fairly soft.”
The hurtling fish are deflected into large plastic fish bins holding 40kg, each of which is instantly topped off with a shovelful of ice. The red cascade may fill a bin in less than five seconds. A conveyor running along the midline of the hold takes full bins so far, but then, they have to be manhandled and stacked. “Haybaling is pretty good training for this,” jokes Charlie Shuttleworth, the bosun. He’s right; here is where the hardest, most unrelenting work gets done, and it happens at 0°C standing in ice.
On this trip 4099 bins, containing some 200,000kg of fish (plus extra ice) had to be carried and stacked, eight or nine high, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. It’s a dangerous job. We are trawling parallel to not inconsiderable waves, and stacked bins topple often. If you weren’t fleet of foot, a few hundred kilos of freezing fish could crush you. Such fish avalanches have to be repacked and restacked, but eventually the entire freezer is jammed tight with fish. Even the chute is lifted and its space filled as well. Further fish occupy the deck above. This area is not refrigerated, so the fish have to be regularly iced.
All this work is done by the nine deckhands and trainee deckhands not the engineers, skipper or mate.
On this trip it took just 43 hours to catch and stow 200 tonnes of orange roughy. Fishing started about midday Monday and the last fish were stacked by 7 a.m. Wednesday. The only respite was a four or five hour break on Tuesday morning. But the rhythm of work beats unevenly. Heading out to the fishing ground, life is pretty laid back for the crew. Admittedly, there are rotating watches all night, but most of the action is restricted to videos. Once on station, the work is hard and constant. Heading back, it’s more sleep, eat, reruns of the same videos and some leisurely cleaning up, especially on the bridge.
Is deep water fishing really a hard life? I ask Trevor. “We have it pretty easy here,” he admits. “All of us, except the engineers, do two trips on and one off, and have two days off between trips. Works out at about 180 days at sea a year. The Japs have only two spells off a year — one of one week and the other of four weeks. Most of the Russians and Koreans have even less. Some of their living conditions have been awful too. Engineers sleeping alongside the engine, radio operators on shelves under the charts, crew in cupboards.
“Even back in England things were a lot tougher. My sons are sixth generation fishermen,” he hesitates with more than a hint of pride. “In Hull, there were about 5000 fishing families like mine. My wife comes from another. There, all the men spent 340 days at sea each year. It didn’t seem especially harsh or unnatural. We were fishermen and that’s just how all fishermen lived. You adapted to it, and when you were courting the women accepted it. I never knew my kids until they were teenagers, and I was just a fella who appeared occasionally. I was at sea when all but one were born, and that time I sailed two days later, just on Christmas.”
Most of the men have difficulty explaining what they like about being deep sea fishermen. Some facetiously remark that they like the pay, but others respond by saying that they would prefer to be fishermen even if they could get more money ashore. Most are young (18-25) and have been fishing two to six years. Few are married. Judging by the walls of the bunk rooms, women and motorbikes seem to rate evenly.
Julian, one of the younger deck-hands, volunteers, “With fishing you can live two separate lives — one on land doing whatever you want to and the other fishing outdoors.” A few others nod assent. (This from people who spend half their time watching videos and the rest immersed in the freezer!) The closeness of life on the fishing boat is something between being a family and a gang. Mostly the crew get on well together, and Trevor makes a great father, with a genuine concern and affection for “the lads”. Even the engineers are treated as crew, which is not necessarily so on other boats.
It is only in the last couple of years that fishermen have become company employees; prior to that they were all on contract, paid according to what they caught. A deckhand’s annual pay is now set at $40,000, made up partly of wages and partly from the boat’s productivity. The crew have mixed feelings about being employees. Some like to keep a distant relationship with the company. Others feel they are regarded as overpaid, drunken louts — a legacy from the ‘bad old days’ of Nelson fishing, when the hard-working, hard-playing reputation of fishermen reached almost mythic proportions. Jim Cunliffe, a Nelson skipper in his thirties, described a time when it was not unknown for some Nelson skippers looking for extra crew to visit the local probation officer and collect whatever was offering.
He recalled a noteworthy incident when the Seafire (his present boat) was found stuck on Clay Point, on the Wellington side of French Pass. “Goodness knows how they’d got it through French Pass, but a farmer rode out to them on horseback,” he recounted. “When he got up on to the bridge, he found the skipper and mate surrounded by empty whiskey bottles, engines still ahead, not even aware that they were hard aground. It’s taken fishing a long time to shake that image.”
The new professionalism in the fishing industry is showing itself in new methods of training, and younger, more ambitious people joining up. Several polytechnics have recently set up fishing courses, some to initiate neophytes into the folklore of fishing, others which are compulsory for acquiring coastal tickets for mates and skippers.
Julian Yates, a 21-year-old trainee deckhand on the Arrow, has graduated from the cadet course. At school he intended to become a pilot, but switched interests after reading a story about deep sea fishing. Sealord in Nelson agreed to sponsor him at the five-month Nelson Polytechnic Course in return for a two year bond.
The course covers such topics as seamanship, knots, net mending and making, wire splicing, types of fishing, marine biology, welding, engineering, information on radar and echo sounders, computers and navigation. There is also a month on a trawler.
Fishermen are not all that has changed. The whole fishing industry in New Zealand has undergone a radical reorientation in the last 10 years. Andrew Branson of the Fishing Industry Board in Wellington summarised the change. “The New Zealand fishing industry was traditionally based on small boats, many of them owned and operated by individuals rather than companies, working shallow inshore waters. By and large, fishing was a weekday operation; weekends were spent at home with the missus and kids, and most of the fish was for local consumption.
“With the declaration of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the later collapse of the inshore fishery, everything has changed. The big fish resources are now recognised to be in deep water far offshore. This means large, powerful, expensive boats, long trips, and only occasional weekends at home. When the EEZ was declared the fishery was worked entirely by foreign boats. We then moved to joint ventures, and more recently to New Zealand-owned vessels operated by New Zealand crews.
“This sort of fishing is capital intensive, so large companies dominate the scene. Investment in the industry exceeds half a billion dollars. We are now fishing deeper waters than anyone else in the world, and are doing it most effectively. Overall, this whole transition from inshore to offshore has happened very successfully, and the industry is now a major export earner.”
So, today’s fishermen are graduates of polytechs (enough to make any old salt choke on his whiskey) and valued contributors to that sacred cow we all sacrifice to nurture, the economy. But even if fishing is looking more respectable, will there still be decent numbers of fish here a decade or two hence?
This is a vexed question. Certainly, the fishing industry worldwide has a record untainted by any hint of conservationist deviation. At times governments have sought to curb the lust for fish, but have been mostly unsuccessful. Fishing disputes have led to international incidents, such as the Icelandic cod wars of the early 1970s (during which Trevor had his first command).
In New Zealand the government collects substantial revenues from the fishing industry, delights in the jobs (about 10,000) and foreign exchange it generates, but also attempts to regulate the industry to ensure its longterm survival. Over the last few years it has introduced the Quota Management System.
In essence, the government sets a total allowable catch (TAC) on each economic species, and then allocates (mostly by tender) portions of the catch to interested fishermen and companies. These portions are termed individual transferable quotas (ITQs) and they have been understood to represent a property right in perpetuity to a certain amount of a given fish species each year. Like any other property, ITQs can be leased or sold to anyone, including government.
As well as conserving fish stocks, the quota system avoids the problem of overcapitalisation in the fishing industry. Without ITQs, fishermen tend to build or charter bigger, more powerful (and more expensive) vessels in order to increase their share of the catch. Ultimately, this results in too much catching capacity and may lead to the collapse of the fishery. With ITQs, fishermen know exactly how much they are allowed to catch and can scale their operation accordingly.
The waters around New Zealand have been divided into a number of fishing areas, and quotas are for one or more areas. Government has made a substantial amount of money by selling quotas, though in the inshore fishery it has also bought them back to preserve dwindling fish stocks.
In addition to quota costs, government charges fishermen annual resource rentals on the quotas they hold ($25m last year). Quotas cover 27 inshore and 8 deep water species, and if you don’t own one you cannot fish commercially. The system is enforced by matching catch returns that fishermen fill out with separate returns generated by licensed fish processors.
The current strategy is to replace fisheries enforcement officers by a paper chase, or “game wardens by auditors” in the words of Ian Clark, a MAF economist. The system is a world first and is being followed with interest by other countries. The main problem at present concerns the disposal of excess fish. For instance, you may have a quota for only one of the two or three species present in your catch. How do you deal with the other species, when technically you are not allowed to have them? Dumping back over the side is wasteful and illegal, so mechanisms are now being developed to address the problem.
More controversial is a new twist — proportional quotas. In the last year there has been concern about declining deep sea fish stocks. Government has had to consider something it did not envisage originally, namely reducing the TACs. This means quotas have to be reduced as well, but the government does not want to spend money buying them back. Instead it is suggesting that ITQs become a fixed proportion of the TAC, so if the TAC is reduced by 20%, your quota is automatically reduced by that amount too, without you being reimbursed. This change will devastate trade in ITQs — who will want to buy an uncertain asset?
The relationship between government and the fishing industry seems torrid. The arm of government most embroiled in wrestling with the deep sea fishing industry is MAF, particularly the deep water section based at Greta Point, Wellington. On the bridge of the Arrow is a book on fish inscribed “To the bosun, with compliments from the f—ing MAF.” The inscription captures the essence of a complex relationship.
MAF is responsible for researching New Zealand’s fishing resources, and recommending to government what measures should be taken to maximally utilise the resource without depleting it. They then have to implement and police whatever regulations government decides on. The other party is a rambunctious young fishing industry, keen to catch fish and make money. Conflict is inevitable, yet each party is indispensable to the other. Without the fishing industry there would be no need for MAF. Without MAF the fishing industry would quickly fish itself into annihilation.
At present there is keen discontent over existing or proposed catch limits for several deep sea species. Every fishing conversation I was party to drifted inexorably into these shoals of contention. Nobody likes the MAF. How can anybody be so wrong as MAF? And they are so stubborn, they’ll never admit to being wrong! It’s not as if MAF is an unknown, faceless enemy either. The deep water section is small, and they have chartered most of the large local boats for research surveys. All the skippers agree, “You never catch fish when you’re with MAF. Everyone nearby can be getting decent hauls, but not MAF.”
MAF scientists reject this claim, and say that it illustrates a lack of understanding of the importance of randomness in fish surveys. “Obviously, the fishermen are out there only to locate big aggregations of fish and catch as much as possible,” explains Don Robertson. “If MAF did that we would vastly overestimate fish numbers, because these aggregations only occur in patches. Our job is to get a representative measure of the whole fishery, including areas of high and low density.”
The fishermen (and the companies) disbelieve some of MAF’s survey results. For instance, fisheries research scientists are certain that the North Chatham Rise orange roughy fishery is declining, with fish numbers down 50% in the last few years. Part of the problem is the leisurely pace at which roughy mature and grow. Best estimates are that 30cm fish (the minimum size caught) are 18-20 years old and mature fish may well be older than humans. (A sobering thought: fish we are now harvesting could have been spawned at the time of the sinking of the Titanic.)
Government’s response has been to announce that the present roughy quota of 34,000 tonnes on the North Chatham Rise will fall by 4000 tonnes per year. MAF has recommend the catch limit should end up between 8000 and 12,000 tonnes per year. The fishing industry is outraged! They swear black and blue, and in a wide range of other hues, that the roughy are thicker than ever on the North Chatham Rise.
Consider the very trip we’ve been on — the Arrow’s fastest trip to the Chathams ever — 200 tonnes in 36 hours fishing! Videos are taken of stupendous fish marks. Of course, big money is at stake here. Orange roughy is very profitable. Fillets fetch close to $US4.00/lb on the US wholesale market. Our six-day cruise yielded about $NZ800,000 of roughy fillets on the wholesale US market. The North Chatham fishery must be worth at least $100m per annum.
Surprising, at first glance, is a reverse charge by fisherman, that the TAC of another deep water species, hold, is preposterously high in the favoured South Island West Coast fishery. Proudly, the fishermen point to companies taking MAF to court when it last increased the hold quota. Didn’t this prove a conservationist ethic?
In any event, the court action failed, the quota expanded, and big boats from all over the world appeared to clean up the fish. Now, say the Nelson folk, it is doubtful if hold quotas can be filled on the coast MAF have it wrong again.
The MAF deep water section, who excite all this emotion, constitute a group of 30 or so scientists and technicians. Their mission is to monitor our deep sea fish resources over 1.2 million square miles of ocean. Although the export earnings from deep water fishing are about $700 million p.a., not until this year did the government agree to provide MAF with funding to purchase their own vessel. None of the boats MAF charters is set up for research, so the scientists have often worked under inclement conditions.
“My hearing was significantly impaired for months after one trip,” said Don Robertson. “We were jammed into a corner right down the back of the boat beside the engine and processing machinery. Imagine standing behind a revving 747 for 12 hours a day for six weeks. It was worse than that.”
Staff spend months a year at sea on research trips. MAF is required to produce detailed population data on at least 10 deep water species splashed across the vastness of the EEZ with resources equivalent to water wings and a 12-inch rule! Since almost all deep water fish are dead when they hit the deck, traditional tagging and recapture methods are of limited use. Information is derived from random trawls of defined duration, with many fish being counted, measured, sexed and some dissected to give age and breeding condition.
Echo sounder (acoustic) surveys are also employed, especially to measure large shoals of fish, but the method has significant uncertainties. Fishermen blame these for the excessive hold TAC. The fact that many of the species are patchily spread on rough ground, have unknown life histories, live in impossibly deep water and migrate or form large spawning aggregations does nothing to detract from the herculean nature of the task.
Given the difficulties of the job, it is perhaps not surprising that MAF is distrustful of the input of the highly interested fishing industry. On the other hand the fishermen claim MAF ignores and belittles their views. They argue that MAF deliberately tries to avoid catching fish, while MAF is distressed at industry attempts to undermine their credibility and the ferocity with which quota cuts are resisted.
Part of the difficulty lies in the way fisheries are exploited. Fisheries wisdom says that the bulk of an unfished population can be reduced fairly quickly, but at least 20% must remain to conserve the stock. So if there were 100,000 tonnes in a virgin fishery, 80,000 tonnes could be taken in, say, four bites of 20,000 tonnes, but once only 20,000 tonnes remained, perhaps a mere 3000 tonnes per year could be taken indefinitely. Industry loves the large hauls of the knock-down phase, but is reluctant to switch to the small catches of sustained yield, especially if it has invested in plant during the boom.
Some of our deep sea fisheries are entering the transition now. Despite the heat of the battle, each side seems to have a grudging respect for the hard work of its opponents.
This year a lot of media attention has focused on the West Coast hoki fishery. Conservationists have become increasingly vocal about fur seals becoming trapped in fishing nets, while local fishermen have been bemoaning the presence of large charter boats depleting the resource.
Jim Cunliffe, skipper of the trawler Seafire, gave me his opinion: “It used to be good on the Coast. To start with there were just a few small local boats. Then quite a few, but that was okay. MAF kept on raising the quota, despite us telling them the fish couldn’t stand it. Eventually the really big foreign boats arrived — a lot of Japanese surimi boats — and the locals just couldn’t compete. In the last few years it’s been a real circus — hundreds of boats jammed into small areas. Last year we were rammed by a foreign boat, and we weren’t even in a busy part of the fishery. From what I hear this year, catches are low and the quota doesn’t look like getting filled. We’re not interested in going down there now.”
Jim is now fishing hold in Cook Strait, with “amazing results”. “Fish marks are the most overwhelming I’ve ever seen anywhere. Just shoot the gear, pull it up, and you’ll have a full load. What would take me three hours to catch down on the West Coast I can get in 20 minutes in Cook Strait.”
Hoki fishing differs from orange roughy only in that the water is shallower, say 600m, and you fish with a midwater trawl (one that doesn’t drag across the seabed). Hold also form huge spawning aggregations in winter, which make for easy fishing, but the fish doesn’t keep as well as roughy. Once you have it on deck it has to be iced down within six hours or it goes off.
“That has caused real problems,” said Jim. “The big Japanese boats were catching fish much faster than they could process it, so it ended up deteriorating on deck. When fresher fish was landed, the older stuff was just thrown back over the side. Dumping is illegal now, but there has been a lot of waste in the hold fishery. Lots of people got bigger hauls in their nets than they could land on their boats. Gear broke from the weight of the catch, or full nets would spill dead fish while still being towed. It’s likely that far more fish was wasted than was actually processed.
“The fish-catching capacity of the big Japanese boats is awesome. Mediuni sized New Zealand boats tow nets with an opening of 20m x 20m. Big Japanese boats have 70m x 70m nets now.” A net aperture of 70m x 70m is two-thirds the size of a rugby field and 12 times larger than that of a 20m x 20m net. No wonder New Zealand boats cannot compete. None of our boats are even sufficiently powerful to pull a 70m net!
Many of these really big vessels are Japanese charter surimi boats. Their numbers have increased particularly rapidly. Surimi is a relatively new product that is generating great market demand, especially in the US, where consumption has gone from 3000 tonnes in 1982 to 70,000 tonnes expected this year. Surimibased products are projected to be worth $3 billion in the US by 1990.
Surimi (rhymes with steamy) is a Japanese-originated fish protein product that is being used in a great many foods (and other goods). Essentially, it is purified muscle protein (actomyosin) from white fish, with antifreeze agents added. The raw material is deboned fish flesh (and hold serves very nicely) that is washed extensively to remove all fats, salts, soluble components, tastes, and odours.
Adding antifreeze stops ice crystal formation and permits water to remain around the protein fibres. Surimi forms a stable gel with a chewy, elastic texture. Yield of product is about 17 per cent of whole fish.
The real attraction of surimi is that a great variety of flavours and fillers can be added to it to produce an astonishing range of products at relatively low cost — it is Neptune’s answer to the soya bean. The most typical product is imitation crab or seafood sticks, sold precooked and packaged. In one American test, 19 out of 22 people preferred the surimibased product to real crabmeat, in a blind trial.
Surimi has even enabled astute businessmen to circumvent the inconvenient Orthodox Jewish ban on eating shellfish and crabs! Since the products are pseudo-invertebrates, generated from flesh of fin fish, as long as an appropriate rabbi has overseen the processing and packaging, the products can be certified kosher. So Rabbi Sheldon Blech of the kosher division of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America has supervised surimi manufacture at several US plants, and each box is labelled with his name and a serial number. Health food enthusiasts and vegetarians, as well as Jews, rely on kosher products.
Although Alaskan pollack has traditionally been the main ingredient in surimi, hoki is now recognised as superior, and commands a premium price. Other New Zealand deep water species such as southern blue whiting may also be suitable. Many people consider hold is too good a fish to end up anonymously as surimi, so some is processed on shore into fish pieces.
Back in Nelson I take the opportunity to inspect Sealord’s processing factories. No. 2 factory employs 100 people, all clad in hygienic white and grouped into four work teams. One team fillets hoki, another trims and packs it, while two other teams are similarly occupied with orange roughy.
Fork lifts bring in the iced or frozen fish, which pass through a thawing bath and are then weighed out, 30kg of hold to a bin. I had been told what soft flesh hold had and how tricky it was to fillet, especially since the body was eel-shaped. Clearly, someone had failed to explain these problems to the filleters, who worked with mesmerising smoothness and speed. I timed one at six seconds for removing both fillets from a good-sized hold.
Colin Cook, a production controller, laughs at my astonishment. “New managers think it looks so easy, they often want a go. We just hope they don’t cut themselves too badly they hardly ever produce usable fillets.”
Filleters get paid on both weight of fish filleted and percentage of the fish recovered as fillets. This provides challenge to what looks a pretty monotonous job. “Some of our guys have been here 10 years,” says Colin.
Fillets are then spread on to a conveyor which feeds them through a skinning machine. On this day skinned fillets were transferred to a second line (mainly women) where raggedness or remaining skin was excised. Finally, trimmed fillets are interleaved with plastic and packed.
Much hoki is processed through a different system that is one of the company’s closely guarded secrets. Hoki fillets have a pair of fat lines running their length, which can give the fish a rancid flavour and lower its storage life considerably. Manual removal is expensive, so Sealord has devised a system in which each fillet on a conveyor is scanned by laser, and then has its fat cut out by computer-controlled water jets. The result is several fragments from each fillet. Small pieces go to lower valued fish-cake products, while larger ones are marketed as hold loins. Fresh hoki resent this water treatment, so it is reserved for partially frozen product that is more durable.
On the other side of the factory orange roughy are being processed. A machine removes heads, people gut bodies, while another machine fillets and skins. Roughy don’t have the fat line of hoki, but have a very oily subsurface layer. This oil is not especially digestible and has a striking laxative effect. In fact, the Japanese doubted that the fish was fit for human consumption in the early days. This worry provoked a curious series of papers from Massey University, showing that pigs and rats grew well on roughy diets. “Thick skinning” — removing a 2mm layer of flesh — overcame the wax and oil problem.
About 30% of the weight of a whole fish is recovered as fillets, but the remaining 70% is not wasted. Some hold heads are packaged as crayfish bait. All other waste materials — heads, guts, skin and frames are processed to make further products.
Following mincing and cooking, fluids are separated from solids. The solids become valuable fish meal, used in various animal feeds including salmon, poultry, pig and cat feeds. Orange roughy oil constitutes a significant proportion of the fish 10,000 tonnes of fish yields 3000t of fillets, 2000t of oil and 1700t of meal. The oil is very similar to that of the sperm whale, which until a few years ago was regarded as indispensable in particularly high-pressure, high-temperature situations. With the ban on whaling, jojoba plants, inhabiting the deserts of the south-west USA, won acclaim as producing something similar, with the unfortunate drawback that the oil was encased in uncrushable nuts, there weren’t too many nuts per plant, and the plants grew distressingly slowly. All of this gloom should have set the stage for an arresting market coup by roughy oil, but alas, it has failed to materialise. Some is used in leather processing overseas and a little is further refined for use in cosmetics. Oreo dory produce a similar oil, and this is held for separate sale.
Although the markets for meal and oil have not been as buoyant as hoped, demand for our deep sea fish is pretty spectacular. The classic case is orange roughy. The first sales to the USA were in April 1982, yet only seven years later the trade in fillets is worth $160m. Such success has been achieved by a happy convergence of careful marketing and the qualities of the fish itself. Orange roughy possess all the attributes that American fish-brokers fantasise over. The fillets are frosty white, boneless, mild in flavour and survive multiple freezes and thaws without collapsing. You can bake, broil, fry, poach or barbeque orange roughy, and not only is it indestructible, it still tastes good!
Orange roughy has become an American household word. (Ultimate proof of its success was someone on the TV soap Dallas ordering it in a restaurant.) Strong demand has pushed US prices to high levels, although there are still fluctuations in price ($US2.60-3.80/1b in the last 18 months).
While most hold is going into surimi, increasing amounts are being marketed as fillets or loins, with the prime markets being Japan, USA and Australia. Hold fillets are fetching $US1.20-$1.80/1b.
Hold is a good eating fish — many prefer it to orange roughy — but it is softer and less durable. To Trevor Smith’s great disgust, Sealord hold is now being sold even in Hull, his old home and heart of the English fishing industry! Closer to home, local McDonald’s ‘Fillet-o-Fish’ burgers are hold.
Some fresh orange roughy and hold is sold in the US. Smaller operations such as Wellington’s Seafresh Fisheries (working the Perseverance) run trips into Cook Strait and Wairarapa lasting only two or three days. Add three more days for processing, airfreight to the US and distribution, and it’s less than a week from live.
Oreo dory fillets are also considered good eating, and fetch something over $US2.00/1b. Hake, ling, silver warehou, barracouta and southern blue whiting are secondary species.
A name that often surfaced in my fishing conversations was that of Peter Talley, head of a substantial independent fishing company based in peaceful Motueka. I heard approving reports of his forth rightness as vice-president of the New Zealand Fishing Industry Association. Some referred to him as the “Ayatollah”, not in a derogatory way, but with wry admiration.
He proved to be a big man articulate, commanding, and a careful listener. He, almost alone in the New Zealand fishing world, has had the courage to commission large new boats, as opposed to the old discards most others have acquired.
“You don’t need any actual money to buy new boats,” he told me with a laugh. “All shipyards everywhere are scrambling for business. Governments offer huge subsidies to build in their country, and the shipyards will arrange all the finances at very reasonable rates.”
What’s the advantage, if any, of owning new ships? “New boats are much more economical to run, and it’s running costs that cripple you in the long run. Good crews are an enormous asset, but the only loyalty in this business is to the flashest boat with the best facilities. Have that and you’ll get the best crew.” His flagship is the 65m Amaltal Explorer, built two years ago.
While Peter sympathises with Trevor Smith’s dislike of charter boats, he adds, “You can’t afford not to have them. With the present level of uncertainty in the industry, charter boats are a way of fishing without committing yourself to the expense of buying boats until the uncertainties are resolved.”
“Nobody knows how the Maori fishing issue will be resolved. Profitability in the industry is low, largely because of government charges. Last year, fuel tax cost us $30m and resource rentals $25m, and government has talked of raising rentals. Then there are the proportional quotas. Quota trading has been a very important part of balancing fish and catching capacity, and people have paid a lot for quotas. Imagine the effect of declaring that houses are no longer tradable commodities; they can’t be bought or sold. Proportional quotas will have that effect on the fishing industry. Then there are difficulties with MAF and quotas. It’s an indictment on us all the way that MAF has had to hitchhike its way around the EEZ. But I reckon they have really got some things wrong.
“There are plenty of roughy at the Chathams, not as many hold on the West Coast as they think, and the Challenger Plateau roughy fishery isn’t looking too good. A particular difficulty at the Challenger is that the fishery extends out to the Westpac Bank, well beyond the 200 mile EEZ, so anyone can catch the fish out there, and this could slowly bleed the fishery to death. So there are a few uncertainties,” he grins.
“But you’ve invested a lot in new boats. You must think there is a future for deep sea fishing?”
“Of course I do, and not just me. The industry has spent over $100m in the last four years just in onshore processing facilities! We’re a major provider of jobs and export earnings ($700m in 1987/8). Fish are still plentiful and more are being found. There’s some hope of another orange roughy fishing ground on the Lord Howe Rise, up north. We may have to fish further afield — perhaps the subantarctic part of our EEZ, where we’ve currently banished the Russians, or beyond.
“Our fishermen are the best in the world now at fishing deep water, especially on difficult ground. It’s not actually all that difficult once you’ve got the gear. One of my skippers described it as driving a bus: the fish are just waiting to be picked up. No inshore skippers have failed in deep water, but many deep sea men have failed dismally in the inshore fishery. We are not quite as good as some at catching squid yet. Adding more value to the catch through further onshore processing and developing new product lines is quite feasible. The markets are crying out for all the fish we can supply. There’s plenty that’s positive in the fishing industry. Industry’s goal is to be a $2 billion a year industry by the year 2000.”
A day later as I flew high, north from Wellington, I searched for a minute speck in the blue vastness of Cook Strait. There it was, beyond the Brothers, the Arrow. A part of me was chugging east at 11 knots, many miles away, in another world.