Richard Robinson

Goodwill hunting

Spearfishers are taking aim at freshwater pests instead of dwindling marine species.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

No boats are allowed—competitors must wade to their hunting grounds. Taupō’s highest densities of catfish are found in these warm, muddy shallows around Motuoapa Bay: a 1995 census caught 639 in a single net.

If the catfish has seen Luca Waring—and it’s hard to imagine how it hasn’t, because the water is so clear that I can see this playing out 10 metres below me—then it’s apparently trusting in some blithe notion of camouflage.

Waring is still on the same breath he grabbed at the surface, but he bides his time, letting gravity inch him closer to his prey. Slowly, he extends the spear in his right hand, staying the potential energy coiled in its rubber sling. Still, the catfish is supine. Waring brings himself to a weightless stop with the merest fan of his fins. Then, allowing for the deception of parallax, he takes aim.

Natives of North America, the first brown bullheads (left) were released in Auckland in 1877. No-one knows why—catfish are insipid eating.

Across this south-eastern reach of Taupō Moana, 62 other spearfishers are doing the same thing, if their luck is holding. New Zealanders, Australians, Italians, Americans—even a team from Guam. It’s the World Freshwater Spearfishing Championships, and the bad news for this fish and its kin is that catfish are the sole targets.

If you ask event organiser Darren Shields, these teams are here at Taupō because spearfishing in the sea has gotten too far up itself.

“The saltwater world champs have become really cut-throat,” he tells me. “They’re extremely competitive, and frankly borderline in terms of complying with rules.”

He should know: “I entered my first proper competition at 14. I went to every competition I could—it was a way of life—and I won some bits and pieces along the way.”

By which he means winning the New Zealand saltwater spearfishing championships six times.

“Twenty years ago, I represented New Zealand in the worlds, and at the end of it, I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t enjoy one moment of that’.”

This competition, then, is spearfishing counterculture—a middle finger in the face of the barb-brandishing ruling class.

“We wanted something that was a lot more fun, that a broader range of people could enjoy,” says Shields.

Competition director John Anderson fields questions from Italian competitors Gino Gallina (centre) and Alberto Amicabile. Rule one: catfish only. “The moment someone finds a trout with a hole in it, this event is finished,” warns Anderson.

Fun is as fun does. Waring, like everyone else, will be in the water for six hours today, making at least 120 dives. While many will be in the shallows, other spearfishers are prospecting on a drop-off further out, routinely diving to 18 metres on a single breath.

Out there, I can attest, you can’t see the bottom, so for Pat Swanson, it’s a matter of summoning lung capacity over and over again before jack-knifing down into the gloom on spec.

With practised, languid kicks, he drives his sinuous fins. He pinches his nostrils and forces a little precious breath through his Eustachian tubes—the Valsalva manoeuvre.

(It’s the same gesture you may have made during the descent of an airplane: holding your nose while attempting to blow air out it.)

The pressure gradient is steepest in these first few metres of water, and any gas-filled spaces in Swanson’s body—ears, sinuses, lungs, spleen, gastrointestinal tract, even the small part of his face under his mask—will squeeze. As the volume of Swanson’s cavities halves, Boyle’s law decrees that the pressure inside them will double. If Swanson doesn’t force more air into his inner and middle ear as he descends, equalising the pressure inside and out, he’ll experience the acute pain of middle-ear barotrauma.

By the time Swanson reaches the weedy bottom, his lungs are squeezed tight by ambient pressure almost three times greater than at the surface. He quarters the lake bed like a bird dog, peering into underhangs and crannies.

“It’s basically a relentless determination,” he tells me later. “I used to work as a commercial kina and pāua diver, and when you dive for a living, you develop this ability to focus for long periods.”

But there’s the canny instinct of a hunter, too. Swanson and his buddy, Rowan Virbickas, are out here on the drop-off because two days of stroppy sou’westers have left the inshore margins hazy with suspended silt.

“Catfish like to rest on the bottom during the day, so if it’s been stirred up, they’ll go out into deeper water,” says Swanson.

Richer pickings come at a metabolic cost: as Swanson’s oxygen budget goes into the red, his body is appropriating blood from his hands and feet, redirecting it to his heart and brain instead. The pressure is wringing extra haemoglobin from his spleen, releasing oxygen-laden red corpuscles.

New Zealand women’s spearfishing champion Alex Edwards and buddy Gemma Shields (right) spend six hours in Taupō’s chilly waters on the first day of competition. “I don’t think men have any physical advantage,” says Edwards. “I don’t aim to be the best female: I aim to be the best.”

If I’m to watch this play out, I have to dive myself, just deep enough to make out the bottom. I can stay submerged for barely 20 seconds before the carbon dioxide in my blood sets off a panic in my brain. If I tried to follow Swanson to the bottom in my unfit state, I might succumb to shallow-water blackout, the bane of freedivers. Swanson stays down another 30 seconds before turning for the surface. Still, he’s in no hurry.

He and Virbickas dive in turns, giving each other a short break at the surface to purge carbon dioxide and replenish oxygen-starved tissue. Virbickas checks his buddy for any hint of hypoxia—disorientation, drowsiness, pallor—before diving himself. This teamwork has won the pair five out of nine annual Catfish Culls—a sister event held in these waters every February.

“We don’t have any secret spots,” says Swanson. “We’re no better than anyone else. We just have a very high work rate.”

[Chapter Break]

Back inshore, Luca Waring eases his spear closer to the catfish with minuscule motions of his fins. His trim—the balance between the lead weights around his waist and the air in his lungs—is perfectly metered.

The catfish lies motionless. The survival instinct in this one is not strong. Waring releases his grip on the spear shaft, letting the rubber sling launch it to his target. Only in that millisecond does the fish flinch, but Waring has allowed for any darting flight, so that two of the spear’s three tips pierce it through the head and flank. There is no struggle.

A stream of bubbles traces Waring’s ascent. He lifts the lid off a trailing plastic ‘float boat’, and draws the catfish off the tines by closing the lid on it and pulling the spear clear. Three of the fish’s dorsal spines are tipped with poison glands—no-one needs a jab mid-competition.

I struggle to reconcile what I just saw. This species, the brown bullhead catfish, is a listed pest in New Zealand, but on land, the deaths of pests such as possums and stoats are ameliorated by welfare regulations that stipulate that the animal must be rendered ‘irreversibly unconscious’ within three minutes (which still seems like an age to me).

Carmela Tyquiengco and her compatriots travelled from Guam to compete against teams from Italy, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Catfish, however, are piscine zombies. Despite its wounds, this fish could be alive the day after tomorrow. Pest managers suspect that this talent has allowed catfish to spread from Taupō across much of Waikato, Auckland, Northland and, lately, the Bay of Plenty. In the first six months of 2018, Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff caught 35,000 catfish in Lake Rotoiti—including 1000 juveniles in a single night at Te Weta Bay. Then, that December, Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff caught six near Mokoia Island, in Lake Rotorua.

Pest managers think catfish could be hitch-hiking in commercial eel nets and boat trailers. But it’s unclear how these Lazarus fish could have survived a trip from Taupō to Lake Mahinapua near Hokitika, one of two South Island infestations.

There is a covert group of anglers in New Zealand dedicated to the illegal spread of fish such as koi carp, tench, rudd and perch. These are ‘coarse’ fish, so-called because their scales are large and rough, compared to the velvety flanks of salmonids, and they’re a burgeoning aquatic nightmare, hoovering up native fish, muddying the waters and decimating aquatic plants.

Have catfish, too, enjoyed assisted passage around the country?

Catfish are a cosmopolitan family of around 3000 species, found everywhere except Antarctica. Brown bullheads rightly belong in North America, anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada to Central America, but in 1877, someone saw fit to bring 140 of them to New Zealand and tip them into Lake St John in Auckland (the lake no longer exists). Nobody knows why catfish were brought here: the brown bullhead is miserable eating and offers no sporting fight (if you still want to catch one, they like cheese, apparently). Furthermore, the brown bullhead is the runt of the catfish family. While the Mekong giant catfish runs to nearly three metres, brown bullheads average just 20 centimetres here in Taupō. Therein may lie a clue: it’s possible they were released for trout to grow fat upon. They’ve been here since 1985, at least.

There’s no evidence that catfish harm the lake’s lucrative trout fishery, but all the same, says Department of Conservation freshwater threats ranger Brenda Lawson, “I’d like to see catfish gone, because they’re eating our native species.”

Every month, DOC samples catfish stocks in the south of the lake, and when the fishes’ stomachs are opened, scientists find freshwater snails, bullies and damselfly and caddisfly larvae. Once catfish grow to a certain size, they turn on crayfish, too—although Lawson suspects the smaller fish could be eating crayfish that aren’t revealed in gut samples.

“The way they feed, foraging along the bottom, puts all that sediment into suspension in the water column,” says Lawson. “So they’re one cause of the cloudiness of the water down at Motuoapa.”

These southern bays are a favourite with catfish, says Lawson, because “they’re shallow, they’re warm, and they’re muddy”.

In 16 nights of netting at Motuoapa, a University of Waikato study in 1995 caught 6247. A single net captured 639 catfish. Elsewhere, Taupō Moana mostly denies the fish their favoured conditions: DOC’s monthly monitoring shows that, between 2000 and 2017, catches have flatlined, suggesting this population, at least, has hit a ceiling.

As far as Darren Shields is concerned, catfish offer a future to a sport feeling the weight of a hard public stare.

One spearfisher came all the way from Moldova, only to injure himself shortly before the event. Moss Burmester scouts at Motutere Bay before the competition. This sort of dedication has seen Burmester excel at Olympic and Commonwealth Games swimming, competitive surf life saving and underwater hockey.
Spearfishers work deeper waters off Cabbage Tree Point. Only one of a pair is allowed to dive at a time, and both must be tethered to the team’s ‘float boat’, a buoy in which they stow their catch. Deaths in New Zealand spearfishing competitions stopped with the introduction of the pairs system in the early 1990s.

“I think people are increasingly aware of the state of the ocean, and it can’t sustain what we’re doing to it,” he says. “I’ve been in European spearfishing competitions where I’ve shot one fish in six hours of diving, and that’s been the only one I’ve seen all day. Is this really the right thing to do? Should we be trying to kill the last fish in the ocean just so we can say we’re better than the other guy?

“Every year, I see fewer and fewer of certain species, and every time I take one, I’m part of the problem.”

Catfish carnage, then, is guilt-free spearfishing.

“Everyone wants them gone—we get welcomed with open arms here in Taupō.”

Shields says freshwater events here attract twice the entries of saltwater competitions.

“People like the idea that they’re killing pests, rather than diminishing stocks.”

At 2pm, the shooting stops, and pairs of divers swim back to shore, trailing their catches behind them. Some stumble ashore exhausted, and friends and family help them with weight belts and float boats. At Motuoapa, they bag their catches, swatting away wasps with jandals.

I get my first close look at a brown bullhead, and it’s an unlovely encounter. Thick-bodied and squat, they have a primordial countenance, thanks to eight fleshy barbels ringing the head. Presumably, these reminded someone of a cat’s whiskers.

The two longest, the maxillary barbels, bookend a broad, gummy mouth permanently set to a grimace. Just behind sit a pair of tiny, unreadable eyes—the fish has adapted to opaque waters and a tactile, crepuscular lifestyle.

Brad Lang knows this lakebed well; he’s competed in the last five catfish culls here. “Day two is hard,” he says. “You’re chasing the same fish that got away from everybody yesterday.”

They have no scales. Rather, the dull, olive-brown body is coated in slick mucus. This is why most of these catfish are still alive: their whole body is a sort of lung.

“They’re revolting in lots of ways,” observes Pat Swanson, “but they do have some interesting behaviours. If you shoot one, your buddy might dive next and find that you’ve stirred up a sediment cloud on the bottom. Often, other catfish will come to investigate it.”

He and Virbickas have exploited that fatal attraction ruthlessly: Swanson’s grappling with a catch bag bigger than most. Inside writhe 54 fish.

Car doors slam as the whole show heads to Taupō for the weigh-in, where some can’t resist tipping their bounty onto the counting table with a flourish. Good hauls rouse applause, and the loudest comes when Moss Burmester empties his. A scrutineer counts the fish in pairs, but everyone’s doing the maths ahead of him. Seventy-eight catfish are unceremoniously tipped into a drum for weighing.

There’s a prize for the smallest catfish, too.
Bruno Vitali checks his Italian team’s tally. Scores are awarded by cryptic arithmetic that derives a sum from both weight and numbers.

If there’s a chance of getting wet, Burm-ester is up for it. A former Olympic and Commonwealth Games swimmer, he’s also represented New Zealand at surf life saving championships and underwater hockey tournaments. When he’s not skewering marine life—he’s the only person to have landed a black marlin with a spear—he’s coursing the bottom of Taupō Moana for catfish.

Catfish might be quiescent, but they’ve still got Burmester guessing.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to them,” he says. “No pattern to let you get a handle on their behaviour.”

His buddy, Nat Davey, agrees: “I’ve done six Catfish Culls and I still can’t work them out.”

American Kathy Cosby is more used to struggling with the marine megafauna of northern California.

“I normally hunt much bigger, faster, things. My whole idea of what’s exciting has changed over the last few days. Now, when I see a small, floppy fish lying in the weed, I think, ‘All right!’”

The tally is well down, even for 17-year-old rising star Alex Edwards, New Zealand’s women’s spearfishing champion. In the past year, she won the open women’s division at the Inter-Pacific Spearfishing Championships in Hawaii, the women’s and juniors’ divisions of the Australian National Championships, and the women’s division of the last Catfish Cull, which took place over Waitangi Weekend. She and her buddy, Gemma Shields, brought just 30 fish to the table today, but Edwards spent the competition doing quite possibly the most painful thing you can do with a sinus infection: subjecting it to the repeated squeeze of free diving to depth: “It was pretty hard.”

Jordy Wilson (left) and Mati Matatyaou make a final tally. The catch was well down on previous events.

The event is delivering on one aim, at least: it’s attracted a miscellany. The rest of Edwards’s family—her mum, dad and two sisters—are competing as well, and the junior ranks are full, as are the mixed pairs. Among the men, there’s a preponderance of grey hair.

“We’ve got 70-year-olds diving alongside 17-year-olds,” says Darren Shields.

Neutral buoyancy is a great leveller, says Edwards.

“I don’t think men have any physical advantage. I’ve been competing against the boys since I was young. We can all dive well, and we can all win. I don’t aim to be the best female: I aim to be the best.”

Which comes down to smarts, she says: “It doesn’t matter how long you can hold your breath; it’s all about your ability to find fish—knowing how they behave, where they prefer to hang out. I always think, ‘If I were a fish, where would I be right now?’”

[Chapter Break]

Sunday arrives sullen and chilly. The jetty lights are still on at 7am, and out on the bay, the swans are just dusky rumours. The forecast portends 20 knots of wind from every quarter as a low scuds overhead, but for now, ashen clouds hang stubbornly over the divers, granting their quarry a cloak of gloom. Today’s session is an hour shorter, and by 1.15pm the teams are making their way back to shore. The keenest of them are still face-down, hunting the final shallows.

Ben Jeffares staggers ashore, limping badly: “That was a very bad day.”

Everyone’s been doing it hard.

“There are a lot fewer fish today,” says Luca Waring. “We had to work even harder, because they’re hiding in the weed.”

Graham Carlisle (far left) has represented South Africa and Australia in international competitions; Taupō is his second freshwater event.

His buddy, Edward Warnock, agrees: “They were very scared and scatty today: probably because a lot of them have been shot at. You’ve got to work for it—stay keen.”

Pat Swanson eyes the lake ruefully.

“We used to get plenty of fish right here in the shallows,” he says.

The numbers bear him out. He and Virbickas speared 119 catfish here just a month ago, to win the 2019 Catfish Cull. In all, 274 spearos took out 2605 of them. The year before, they shot around 3500.

“I truly believe we’re having a local impact,” says Swanson. Then, with a science teacher’s rigour, he adds: “But you’d have to do a tagged study.”

Even Moss Burmester, almost a fish himself, found it tough. He and Davey have landed just 35.

“I got four fish in the last hour and a half,” he says. “It’s easy to switch off when you’re getting tired, but you have to stay focused. This could come down to one fish.”

In town, the weigh-in is palpably subdued compared to yesterday’s. Most people can lift their catch bags with one hand. As it turned out, Burmester was right: it did come down to one fish, and it was in his catch bag, making him and Davey the World Open Freshwater Spearfishing Champions for 2019.

The tally will show that about 1300 catfish were harmed in the making of this story. Brenda Lawson dug them into the garden for fertiliser.

Sensitive barbels house a catfish’s taste buds, pointing to food in opaque water. The word ‘barbel’ comes from the Latin ‘barbula’, for ‘little beard’.