Gone fishing

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Mum and Dad’s first date was in a dinghy. As soon as my brothers and I could hold a handline they had us dangling for spotties off the Picton wharf. We adored it. The jostle for the best spot. The smell of sunscreen and squid bait. Tug. “A monster!” Mum and Dad would exclaim, as we pulled up fish no longer than a finger. Fishing brought its own list of firsts, little markers of independence: the first time you baited up a hook by yourself. The first time you grabbed hold of a flipping, spiky body, held it still, eased the hook out. First time you hooked yourself.

As we got older, we hauled up blue cod and flouncing, barking gurnard from Wellington’s Red Rocks. We helped grind pāua for fritters. We trawled for trout on Lake Taupō, wandered up ice-clear streams and learned to cast a fly. As teenagers we built hīnaki, baiting the traps with dog bones before dropping them into the stream over the road. My last fishing trip was also my Dad’s last one: as the dementia set in, we chartered a boat and he pulled in a decent snapper, managing to keep his feet at sea even though he staggered on land.

Lately, my four-year-old has been begging us to take her fishing. She’d love it just as much as I do. I want to watch her face when she feels that first bite, when she sees her fish skitter to the surface, furious. I keep saying no.

Recreational fishing, I’m told, is the third rail. You don’t touch it unless you want to hack off a large and vocal demographic: the people who, like me, grew up catching anything and everything. They will fight to maintain the status quo.

But in the Hauraki Gulf, my home patch of sea, the status quo is dead penguins and snapper with weird, milky flesh—a sign of starvation. It’s kina barrens and the ghosts of scallop beds and crays; it’s the age of that destructive, smothering new seaweed, Caulerpa. And yet still, we hammer this ecosystem: it endures one million recreational fishing trips every year, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries’ national survey of recreational fishers.

In August, if scientific agencies tick the box they’re widely tipped to, we’ll officially enter a new epoch: the Anthropocene, an age defined by the impact of humans on the Earth. Translation: it’s all about us. Our systems and choices and activities—our weekend fishing trips—aggregated.

Many of the choices we’re faced with now cut close to the bone. Fishing is a literal line between a person and the vast natural world beneath the sea. For many it’s a rope, woven generations strong.

But the graphic on page 18 shows the way we’re fishing now—at scale. Everywhere. Notably, it doesn’t provide the whole picture, missing vessels that stick close to shore, and those smaller than about 15 metres. That is, it’s missing most recreational fishers. But they’re there.

For me, it’s time to find new ways of engaging with the sea. I’ve been tossing up buying a little dinghy. We could potter from beach to beach, swim, explore rock pools.

And I’ve been thinking about the very best day of my blessed, fishy childhood. Because it was not spent pulling fish out of water. Instead, we went to them: snorkelling, on the Great Barrier Reef. I remember the shock when I put my face in—the colour, the coral. I felt like I’d swum into my favourite jigsaw puzzle, a place of swarming life and diversity and abundance, and I never wanted it to end.