The fortunes of fishing
A glassy sea, an open sky, fish on the bite. An alluring image, but often far from the day-to-day reality faced by small-scale coastal fishermen, who must compete for fewer fish while trying to stay on the right side of increasingly complex government rules. One of the few unregulated fisheries left is tuna, which attracts scores of fishermen to the West Coast each summer to try their luck with line and lure.
I am hanging around a public bar in Westport, trying to bum a ride on a tuna boat. There are plenty of tattoos, some gang patches and a large number of men with beards. Many are fishermen, but none seem about to sail.
Then someone finds a boat that is leaving that evening. I have 10 minutes. I grab my bag and run for the end of the pier.
The Star of Bengal is a rusty trawler painted bright aquamarine. It has spent the last few years in deep waters off the Chathams. I slide down the tuna poles and find the wheelhouse. “Throw your bag down there,” says the skipper, a Maori called Eric. I look into the bunkroom, a foul-smelling pit at the bottom of a two-metre ladder.
Half an hour later, we are crossing the Westport bar. Two red-and-blue floral bed sheets are strung on a line above the boat, flapping in the breeze. This is the Bengal’s first voyage on the albacore tuna fishery. I look around the wheelhouse. Half the instruments aren’t working. Eric is looking around him with an air of mild curiosity. I ask him delicately if he has ever sailed this boat before.
No, he hasn’t. In fact, this is his first trip to sea in a year. I edge over to one of the crew, a good-looking boy called Rollov. Eric must be a pretty fine boatman, huh? Rollov shrugs. He hasn’t met him before. He still seems to be waiting for an introduction. We’ll be at sea five days. I wonder about lifeboats.
Eric asks me to take the wheel. The satellite navigation GPS unit doesn’t seem to be functioning, so I try to keep a steady course on the visual compass card. I squint into the sunset. The big trawler is cumbersome and responds slowly. After half an hour, I look back and see that our wake is a series of languid curves.
As we head further out into the Tasman Sea, the boat begins to pitch and roll. I’ve had one too many beers in the Westport pub. I go out on to the deck and watch the horizon, a fading line to the west. There’s an acrid smell of old fish, rubber, salt spray. The occasional squeal of distressed metal comes up from the bowels of the ship.
Around midnight, Rollov starts to cook a huge pan of chops. The grease-laden smell permeates the boat. There is no escape. I continue to fix on the dark horizon.
Later, I descend the ladder into the pit of the bunkroom, redolent with ancient sleeping bags and sea boots. We stop for the night in deep water. As I lie on my foam-rubber squab, I think of the mass of water a few inches beneath me. I think of marine canyons, unimaginable pressures, exotic species of fish. I fall asleep to the geriatric creaking of the anchor.
Six hours later, I am woken by the pulse of the engines. We are moving across a flat sea. I climb the ladder to the wheelhouse. The sun rises as a red orb over the Southern Alps 50 miles to the east. Behind us the trolling lines fan out like a spider’s web.
Eric, a quiet man, tells me that his father harpooned whales out of Kaikoura in a hand-paddled boat, in the manner of Captain Ahab. He had been drowned while Eric was still a boy.
Eric started out as a crayfisherman in Fiordland. Like many fishermen, he moved around the country in search of work. Now, at a table in the wheelhouse, he pores over a satellite map of water temperatures. The albacore congregate where the colder currents from the Antarctic meet warm waters and cause an upwelling of krill.
The lines have been out only half an hour when Eric suddenly shouts to his crewmen. They move to the stern and quickly pull in the web of lines. I peer into the dawn. We are being followed by a massive thresher shark. The lines aboard, Eric gazes after the fin as it curls away to the south. “He would have snacked on our gear,” he says.
While we wait for the albacore to appear, I strike up a conversation with Rollov. The son of a lighthouse keeper, his first trip to sea was aboard the ill-fated Maria Louisa, run over and sunk at the mouth of Wellington Harbour with the loss of five crew.
I climb up on to a hatch cover for a better view of the lines. We are trailing 17 of them from wing-like towers to the side of the boat. The lines vary in length to reduce the risk of a crazed tuna creating a hopeless tangle. We are towing at six knots. Any faster will tear the jaws out of the fish when they strike, says Rollov.
By eight o’clock an atmosphere of gloom has settled on the boat. We have been at sea 18 hours without a bite. Another hour passes, then suddenly Rollov jerks around and starts to pull in a line, hand over hand. I can see something bouncing along the surface behind us like a water-skier. Rollov hauls the fish over the stern. It is pearly green along the bottom and has a glistening black top. It is startlingly beautiful and as big as a newborn baby.
The tuna’s big black eye stares up at me from the deck as Rollov, with the deft movement of an executioner, drives a screwdriver into its brain. Now more of the big fish are striking, and Rollov and Jason are skimming them along the surface and dragging them over the stern to shiver on the rusty green deck.
Tuna strike in packs, and the boat surrenders to the frenzy of activity. Rollov rapidly flips each lure out of the tuna’s mouth and throws the line back over the stern. His steel dish of Weetbix sits half-eaten on a hatch cover.
The fish are glistening, and so fat they seem ready to burst through their skins. “Do you feel anything for them?” I ask Rollov. “Sometimes,” he says. “But it doesn’t pay to.”
The sea goes quiet. We keep trolling, then Eric sees a rough patch of water to port. “That could be a feed line,” he says. He turns the boat sharply, but there are no strikes.
Half an hour later, we see a cloud of petrels and sooty shearwaters wheeling over a patch of rough water to the south. Eric spins the wheel again. “We’ve hit them,” he yells. Again the lines are bouncing and the big fish are coming over the stern. Jason tells me how to keep the tension on the nylon so the fish can’t flip the lure out of their mouths, and how to lift it to keep the albacore skimming along the surface.
After hauling in 20 metres of monofilament nylon, my hands are sore and chapped. On the stern deck, in a big box of ice, two dozen tuna are lined up like massive sardines in a can. Their lateral fins stick up out of the bloody slurry like penguin arms.
We are following a slow track across a mirror sea. It is four hours since the last tuna was caught. Rollov sprays peach blossom air-freshener on the cabin bulkhead. At this level of boredom, an unexpected smell seems like a gift. An hour later, a school of sharks breaks the surface to starboard. The helmsman turns to chase them, simply for something to do.
The skipper is asleep, slumped in a bunk of blue plastic fish boxes. I pull out a book, one that I haven’t been able to get into for a month. It seems vivid and interesting, perhaps because my mind is no longer cluttered with the chatter of city life.
The sun beats down on the Tasman and the boat steams on, imperceptibly putting away the sea miles. Land is 60 kilometres to the east and little disturbs us. Lines from Coleridge’s ancient mariner come to mind: “the water, like a witch’s oils, burnt green and blue and white.” At night we see the faint light of distant ships, but otherwise nothing.
The fishing settles into a steady routine: long periods of boredom followed by sudden activity, a pattern that is repeated for the rest of the voyage. But on the way back to Westport at night, I witness the kind of commonplace miracle that can break the tedium of life at sea.
As we approach the entrance to the Buller River, a vast cloud of luminous streaks appears beneath the bow. They radiate away from the ship as far as I can see. They are a huge shoal of squid, glowing with some internal light. I watch them for an hour, then they disappear, and we take the entrance to the river on a pitch-dark sea.
In the morning I wake to a harbour packed with boats from all over New Zealand, rafted up four or five abreast. The albacore tuna season, running in the summer months, is a cardinal event on the inshore fishers’ social calendar. This year the small port is hosting 100 boats.
Husband-and-wife crews from as far afield as Invercargill and Tauranga stroll between each other’s boats, chatting over the year’s news. The mood is a little flat: there hasn’t been a great tuna season here for some time. No-one is quite sure why. There is talk of international measures to protect the albacore, which migrates throughout the Pacific. Several other tuna species, such as big-eye and yellowfin, are also on a list for consideration by the World Conservation Union.
Aboard one of the rafted boats I speak to some of the locals. The fall-off in the tuna catch is bad news for Westport. It is estimated that $3 million a year goes into the town during a good season. They tell me that the permanent fleet of about 20 local boats has been halved since the introduction of fishing quotas in 1985.
Fishermen say that trawlers from the large companies, brought into the country for deep-water work, are now working the coastal fisheries. “These boats are big,” says Danny, one of the fishers. “We have a run of red cod, and the next week we’ve got 50 bloody trawlers down here, all over 30 metres long.”
Foreign vessels are not permitted to work New Zealand’s inshore fisheries any more, but joint-venture operations are common: foreign vessels working under licence, sometimes with New Zealand crew. The Westport fishermen are sceptical of these enterprises, which they say rarely benefit local communities. Sceptical, too, of the quota system, despite having lived with it for 10 years.
In Auckland’s Viaduct Basin I found Barry Newlands of the Federation of Commercial Fishermen on the bridge of the Ikatere. He had a trim beard and a face burned nut-brown by the elements. He observed me from his high swivel chair as though watching some far-off natural phenomenon, like a squall or a wind change. There was a sack of onions under his chart table. I put him at about 50.
“The quota system has been brilliant for conserving fish stocks,” said Barry, “but the economics for us have been crippling.” When the system was introduced in the mid-1980s, inshore fisheries were in crisis. The industry was unregulated; wide boys in boats everywhere. Controls were erratic and ineffectual. Fish stocks were plummeting.
The government’s response was to set a yearly catch limit for each of the main fish species, and this was carved up among legitimate fishers and fishing companies (see sidebar, page 80).
Newlands’ federation was right behind the moves. There was widespread research and consultation on catch levels for each species. “But since then,” said Barry, “the effect on the small owner-operator has been disastrous.”
Most of the quota has ended up in the hands of fishing companies, and leasing it off them has often been prohibitively expensive. Fishers who hung on to their quota at the time of allocation are still in the running, but many sold their quota to the companies, expecting to lease it back in the future. These are the boats in trouble.
Daryl Sykes of the Fishing Industry Board, himself once a commercial fisherman, believes a flaw in the quota management system stripped small fishers of valuable quota: “Until recently, quota has not been a completely secure bankable asset. So corporates, who had much greater equity, were able to raise finance to buy quota. Many small fishers were willing to buy, but simply could not raise the money.”
And now, added Newlands, to add insult to injury, the government is effectively transferring the property rights of commercial fishermen to recreational fishers: “Snapper in the northern area is the obvious example. While the government has been trying to reduce our commercial quota by 40 per cent this year, nothing has been done to reduce the recreational catch, so they are getting a bigger slice of the pie.”
Recreational fishers have a bag limit (nine snapper per person per day), but their numbers are proliferating, as are the charter boat companies who serve their needs. “It’s the voting power of the recreational fishers,” said Newlands, “that the government has been listening to.
“And if you reduce the amount of snapper we catch, you reduce the amount of other species we can take—like John Dory, gurnard and tarakihi.” This is because fishing for snapper also nets other species.
“On top of all this,” he added, “the user-pays system means we pay for the Ministry of Fisheries to police us.” He rolled his eyes. “Where will it all end?”
Earlier, I had watched Barry’s crewmen preparing gear for a new venture. They were heading for the edge of the continental shelf to catch bluenose, a cod-like fish which is caught with longlines. “Surely,” I challenged him, “you’re a living contradiction of what you say. You’re diversifying into bluenose. Why can’t other fishermen adapt?”
“Well,” he said, “to fish deep water you have to get hold of a bigger boat, buy new gear, learn new methods. Then you’re competing with the existing boats targeting that species. So the lease price of the quota goes up. The small man finds it hard to compete.”
Competing in the coastal waters of north-eastern New Zealand—the area from North Cape to Cape Runaway classified as Snapper One—has been as tough a battle as that faced by fishermen anywhere.
Snapper is the bread-and-butter fish species in the area for commercial and recreational fishers. Central to the issue of how high to set catch levels for both groups is finding out how much snapper actually exists in the fishery. This is no easy task.
Leith Duncan, an ex-Greenpeace researcher and onetime commercial fisherman, explained the difficulty.
“Counting snapper is like trying to count a flock of sheep from a helicopter on a cloudy day,” he said. But the consensus amongst industry scientists and the Ministry of Fisheries is that the Hauraki Gulf, the key area of Snapper One, contains about half the biomass that it should.
Increasing the size of that stock, given all the vested interests, is a huge challenge, not least because of the profound mistrust which exists between sectors of the fishing community. Accusations fly between recreational, commercial and Maori interests, and even between large and small commercial fishers.
Duncan, voicing the concerns of the owner-fisher, says: “Last time I looked at the figures, three companies controlled two-thirds of the quota in Snapper One. And these companies are driven by accountants and shareholders, rather than traditional fishers with a respect for the sea and for fish stocks.”
Big companies bring in more sophisticated boats, which need fewer crew to operate them, he says. This means fewer small boats and fewer fishermen in the local community. A way of life is threatened.
The Port of Leigh is the quintessential northern fishing village. It is a charming spot, with a road that plunges down in sharp curves to an idyllic inlet. At the head of the inlet, square pioneer houses stand between two giant Phoenix palms.
I had driven up to meet the manager of Leigh Fisheries, but the factory seemed deserted. I pushed open an unlocked door. After a short while inside the empty factory, with its faint, sharp odour of the ocean, a siren burst into life and I realised I had tripped the alarm system.
A watchman from a house opposite sprinted across the road to detain me. At this point, a white car with the words Boss Hog scrawled in the dust on the side pulled up. After placating the security man, Greg Bishop ushered me into his office.
Bishop, 35, first came to Leigh 12 years ago on a dubious mission: to poach local boats for an Auckland company. The then manager of Leigh Fisheries threatened to shoot him. Bishop was so impressed by the beauty of the place and the closeness of the community that he promised himself he would return. The old manager has now gone and Bishop is doing his job.
The Leigh fleet of 70 boats fishes up and down the Northland coast, sending snapper back to the Leigh factory through smaller ports along the coast. Nearly all their catch is flown direct to Japan as chilled, whole fish.
The fish are dispatched using the iki lime method: a curved spike through the brain as it comes over the stern of the boat. This coup de main reduces stress and prevents lactic acid build-up in the tissues. “Each fish,” said Bishop wryly, “is treated with loving care.”
He warmed to his subject: “A well-killed fish should have flesh that cuts like butter.” Snapper from around Auckland, he said disapprovingly, are a “dirty golden colour.” Near Thames, where the fish eat crabs in the mangroves, “the flesh goes rotten.” But in the clear Pacific waters off Leigh the flesh is red, “like the red of the chrysanthemums beloved by the Japanese.” I can hear him making this lyrical speech to his Tokyo fish buyers.
Bishop explained that the company is locally owned and embedded in the community. He spoke with pride of the closeness of the town, the tranquillity of the harbour. Leigh, he said, is like the town Llareggub in the play by Dylan Thomas.
The world puts Llareggub on trial for being insane. The townsfolk defend themselves, declaring that it is the world that is insane. But at the point they are about to win and the world is about to be convinced of the virtues of the town, they realise they will be swamped by new arrivals, and deftly lose the case.
Later, in the Leigh pub, I approached a group of men wearing telltale white gumboots. Jamie, skipper of the Popgun, runs his boat for a training centre which teaches young people to fish. The demands of the job cull out the weak, he said. Only one in 30 survived the course and joined the industry.
He has clear views on the importance of communities which fish. Leigh fishers, he said, are sensitive to conservation issues. They are all longliners, a fishing method that is more selective than trawling and enables undersize fish to be returned live to the water.
Fishermen from other tables joined us. Pat, skipper of the Blase, said that a proposed cut in the snapper quota will halve his earnings. “I’m too young to retire, too old to swing a chainsaw,” he said. His brothers run recreational fishing boats for charter. “The government has set commercial and recreational fishers against each other.”
The proprietor of the hotel was a large man with a haunted look. Fishermen are the backbone of his trade. They had recently been making a joke he didn’t find very funny: “If the snapper cut comes in, we expect you to take 40 per cent off the price of your beer, Jim.”
Next day, Jamie took me to sea in the 10-tonne Popgun, the oldest concrete boat in Leigh, and “a bit of an old bucket” according to its skipper. It was a vivid blue day, just a few high cumulus skudding across the horizon, and Alanis Morisette blasting out on the speakers. Jamie was sucking Curiously Strong Peppermints to keep the smell of fish off his teeth.
The Popgun made heavy work of the green swell. Sheets of water whipped back across the decks, drenching us and leaving a layer of salt on our faces. The lurch and sway of the boat kept us grabbing at bulkheads for support. I had the sensation of being at sea in a motorised bathtub.
I looked across the expanse of undulating ocean to the distant Hen and Chicken Islands. There was the exhilaration, once again, in being far from land; the sense of a massive force around us, shimmying and shifting, with a mind of its own.
The simple intention of dragging up fish from the bed of the sea seemed at that moment a noble and pressing one. Jamie and his mate went about their preparations with clinical efficiency, their minds on their gear. I seemed to be the only one noticing the grandeur of the scene.
We shot the longline, a two-mile filament of nylon baited with 800 hooks. First over the side was a float with a flag attached. The line was then played out over the stern. Every two metres, Jamie clipped on a baited hook (West Australian pilchards) and a squat lead sinker.
The boat ran on through the swell on an electronic compass setting, the autopilot locked. Jamie and his mate Steve bent over the trays of hooks in the stern like surgeons over an operating table, their hands shuttling back and forth. Pilchards, hooks and sinkers leapt off the trays and disappeared into the sea.
The intensity of the work, the stink of the bait, the roll and pitch of the boat, gave the scene a potency that stretched back thousands of years to our origins as a hunting species.
When we had finished, two miles of line lay along the bed of the Jellicoe Channel, tempting the lucrative, bottom-feeding snapper.
The positions of the start and finish buoys were punched into the GPS. Occasionally, sharks bite through the line. The GPS helps retrieve the pieces. Today, the sharks stay away.
An hour later we were reeling in the line with a power winch. The first fish aboard was a healthy-looking snapper, sequined red, gasping a little, with bright yellow eyes.
Then a metre-long shark came over the stern. Steve chopped off her fins, then sliced her open along the belly. Her guts, purple and bottle-green, flopped out. In a moment of surreal clarity, three tiny sharks appeared in the midst of this, miniatures of their mother. I felt a tightness in my head. Steve flicked the baby sharks and guts over the stern with one movement of his knife.
Next were gurnard, a dozen or so, with their red bodies and truculent, dotty-professor faces. Their pectoral fins, a polished blue picked out with yellow, open up like butterfly wings. They sat gasping on the stern board before being dispatched with a single iki lime blow to the head. The fish were thrown into a tank holding an ice slurry and instantly chilled.
The sun was glinting on Steve’s tattoos: a tiger and naked ladies on his arms, and down one leg a technicolour dragon. He stood in the stern, the green wake curling away from us, chopping up sharks—a primeval illustrated man. Before this he had been a missile aimer in the Australian navy, and the thumb now gripping the head of a shark, he claimed, had once been insured for $1 million.
We hoisted the end flag of the line aboard and headed back to Leigh. The boat could take half a tonne of fish, but we had a lot less than that. Depleted fish stocks? Jamie shook his head: “Some days, they just don’t bite.”
On the way home, we spotted a helicopter that had landed on a shelf of rock. Three men were surfcasting at the water’s edge. They didn’t look very competent. Was this the future of fishing, I wondered? Wealthy dabblers who fly to prime fishing spots for a weekend of fun?
To Ian Boyce, a retired fisherman who owns a couple of cray and tuna boats at Mount Maunganui, helifishing is a long way from the industry he was part of. “We slept in wet bunks every night,” he said of the life in the 1950s. “We’d trawl from Ninety Mile Beach to Hawkes Bay.” At home one night in seven. Today, inshore fishermen are away only three or four. They see their kids at the weekend.
“The fishermen of Fiordland typified those days,” said Boyce. “They’d raft up four or five boats for a party. One of the skippers would helicopter in a crate of booze. There’d be a scrap. Someone would get thrown in the water. But next morning they’d all be good mates.”
Fishing is now more strictly business, and fishermen are too busy fighting bureaucracy to have much time to throw punches at each other.
Swanny, who runs one of Ian Boyce’s boats, is an example of the new breed of businessman fisher. We sailed on the Sarong out of Mt Maunganui on a winter dawn. Mayor Island was a slumbering lioness on the horizon.
As we made for Motiti Island to pick up his cray pots, an escort of seabirds fell in behind us. The wind was up and the Sarong clipped the tops of the waves and slewed down the other side. White caps formed around us, the spume stinging our faces and hands. Driven by an ancient diesel, the boat moved with squat power against the swell.
Swanny had studied horticulture at agricultural college, then managed a large orchard south of Auckland. His manner was brisk and efficient about the boat and he wore impeccable blue overalls and green fishing boots.
Course coordinates and the location of his pots were stored on the GPS, a piece of equipment that, together with sonar fish finders, has revolutionised fishing in the last decade or two.
Off Motiti, the first of his pots was dragged out of the depths by a power winch. The boat lurched and swung in the seas. Swanny had deftly manoeuvred the Sarong around the buoys, correcting for wind and tide. I stood in the bow and watched. As the cage broke the surface in a burst of spray, I could see the tangle of crays inside. On exposure to air they flapped and leapt like demented birds.
Swanny’s mate extracted the creatures from the traps with a gloved hand and dropped them live into a foaming tank in the stern. Most of the pots were well filled. Lobster stocks in the region are booming, it seems. Swanny is part of a tagging programme designed to monitor stock levels.
Swanny fills his annual quota of crayfish in a month. After that, he moves on to tuna fishing for the summer, where I was later to meet him at Westport. He works on contract. “If I was to buy my own boat and gear, it would cost me a couple of hundred grand,” he said. “It’s hard for the young ones to get into the industry now.”
At the approach to the harbour, Swanny gave me the helm. I found it difficult to keep the boat on its electronic compass setting, although he had assured me that this is one of the calmest stretches of water in the country. I looked at the sheen of fast-moving water in the channel and eyed him dubiously.
Ten days later, navigating the entrance to the same channel in a storm, the Tauranga fishing boat Warlock disappeared and her crew of two drowned. No-one knows what happened.
Something about the deaths of these two men, 28 and 22, touched me: the fact that I had steered a fishing boat the same size through the same channel a week or so beforehand; the news photos of the Warlock washed up, astonishingly intact, on a beach where I had played as a child. The enigma of her last minutes.
Drowning yourself,” said Mark Semmons, a Bay of Islands trawlerman, “is one of the easiest things you can do. Trawlers sometimes snag on the bottom. You’re hooked up to a chunk of New Zealand and there’s a four-metre swell going on under you . . .” He trailed off. In times of extreme danger, Mark takes his gumboots off. He said it had happened maybe a dozen times since he went to sea.
As his trawler Bona Dea glided through moored yachts in Opua Harbour, Davy Jones’ locker couldn’t have seemed further away. A pod of dolphins moved across the sparkling sea with such precision and aplomb that they might have been working for the Bay of Islands’ tourist board.
In his cabin was a brass plaque that read: THIS IS MY SHIP AND I’LL DO AS I DAMN PLEASE! Beside it was a sack of oranges. Mark had just given up smoking, and was a little tetchy. “It’s a bummer,” he said. “I was really enjoying killing myself that way.” He had also just worked two and a half nights without sleep.
He explained the technique of bottom trawling. The key is a pair of trawl boards, about 50 metres apart, that run along the sea bottom in front of the net. They throw up a pair of mud clouds which herd the fish like cows. Behind the trawl boards the net is waiting to collect the fleeing fish.
Trawling is more indiscriminate than longlining, and by the time the fish are hauled aboard they are dead and a little battered from incarceration in the net. This makes them less attractive to the export market, where the appearance of the whole fish is everything. I had heard longliners speak with scorn of this cruder method of fishing, but a good trawlerman is probably more skilled than a longliner.
“You have to be very attentive to what’s happening. I use trigonometry to calculate my tow. If your angles of tack and sweep on the net aren’t right, it won’t open, or the trawl boards won’t fly properly. For a small boat like this, things have to be precise.
“It’s a hard life,” he continued. “I’m 39. I told my wife I’d quit at 45. The only reason I make money now is that I’m bloody good at it,” he said. In Tutukaka, a small port down the coast, there were 10 or so fishermen a few years ago. Now they’re almost all gone. This is typical of many of the Northland ports.
I was on my way to meet Dover Samuels, champion of Maori fishing rights against the marauding Pakeha, so I asked Mark’s view on relations with Maori fishermen.
“Well, there’s no problem, because there are no Maori fishermen left. And there’s hardly any Pakeha fishermen either,” he said laconically. This wasn’t strictly true, but I knew what he meant.
And Dover himself?
“We know where he lives,” Mark said mischievously. “Someone up there shot at a couple of boats with an old Army .303 a while ago.”
Samuels, a respected Ngapuhi elder, is the eminence grise of Matauri Bay, where the Rainbow Warrior is buried. He is also a member of Parliament. Mark laughed. “We look in there from time to time,” he grinned, “Usually at night.” I sensed that he bore Samuels no malice.
As it happened, they turned out to be similar men: tough, complex, with a deep respect for the sea and its riches. They also had remarkably similar views on what had gone wrong with Maori fisheries.
“When Maori got big slices of fishing quota, people thought it would go to the small fishermen in areas like the Far North,” said Semmons. “In fact, it’s mostly gone to one big company. The small fisherman has lost out.”
Under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1992, Maori were given a 50 per cent stake in Sealord, the nation’s largest fishing company. In addition, they gained 10 per cent of quota across the board and the promise of 20 per cent of quota in any species brought into the system in the future—Foveaux Strait oysters, for instance. Maori fishing interests now control 37 per cent of all quota.
From the Crown’s point of view, the 1992 agreement has settled Maori claims to commercial fisheries, although as yet there has been no agreement within Maoridom about how their vast fishing assets are to be distributed.
In the meantime, much Maori fishing quota is being leased to other fishing companies. Once details of the distribution have been finalised, it is possible that this quota could be withdrawn from current users and passed to new owners and fishermen. Small-scale Maori fishermen may yet rise again.
Dover Samuels is a stocky, handsome man with a direct, pugilistic manner. I liked him straight away. We sat on a split-log seat gazing out to the Cavalli Islands, perfect shapes skulking on the horizon against a violent blue sea. Below us was the bright curve of the beach.
I asked him about the fishing methods of his tipuna.
“In the 1940s, when I was a boy, there were 20 fishing boats drawn up on this beach,” he said. “They were clinker-built whaling boats, with a sail and six oars. The farmers lived up on the hill on the marae, and the fishermen by the sea. Our nikau whare lined the beach.
“The night before a fishing expedition we’d prepare the bait and gear. We had flax lines and my father used huge bone hooks for sharks.
“We would stay on Motokawanui [Cavalli Island] on the first night and set off for the outer reefs before dawn. My father or grandfather would be at the tiller, and me and my brothers at the oars.
“In those days there were acres of trevally, kahawai, maomao. Sometimes we were full to the gunwales. To save room, we towed the hapuku in a train behind the boat. Their air sacs kept them afloat. Snacks for the mako,” he grinned.
“The fish were filleted on wooden tables at the beach, then hung on manuka rails to dry. Some were salted. Fish that were to be bartered with inland tribes disappeared the next day. Our own fish would be stored in the chimney breast of the whare for the winter.
“One day my father was sailing to Motokawanui Island, and a sudden wind change tipped the boat. Although he was a fisherman, he couldn’t swim. And he had on those thigh-length fishing boots.” I thought of Mark Semmons and his prudent boots-off policy. And I thought of Eric of the Star of Bengal, who had lost his father in the same way.
“Tohunga put a tapu on the sea,” Dover went on. “His body was never found, so the tapu lasted for months. You could take no food from the sea. This was hard in winter, when food was scarce. But it was a mark of respect for the sea and for the dead. There was no blame or anger. It was propitiation.”
Now the coastline has been plundered by commercial fishing, Samuels said. Company boats and pair trawlers (two boats with a net between them—the bane of coastal fisheries) have fished the bay and the stocks have been decimated. “I would close the fishery,” he said. “My ancestors would have put a long-term tapu on it.”
I saw the link between Dover’s passionate feelings for the sea and the loss of his father. I could see the 10-yearold boy being given the news on a winter’s day in 1950. I imagined him walking the beach for months afterwards, both hopeful and terrified that the sea would give up the body. I thought of him stooping to pick kai moans and seeing the sea as a living force about to engulf him for violating the tapu. Shooting at trawlers raping this sacred ground became suddenly more comprehensible.
In his attempts to restore customary fishing use to his area, Dover Samuels is proposing that quota become available for local communities. This will draw children and grandchildren to tribal lands. Wasn’t that a bit utopian, the idea of getting young Maori out of the cities?
“There is a kind of dreamtime fantasy in everyone returning to the turangawaewae. But some of these young people are feeling the call of their whakapapa. I think there is room for cooperative fishing and farming ventures. We have to avoid creating a generation of permanent, premature pensioners.”
Dover rattles off a list of northern tribes. “We’re proposing an amalgamation of tribal quota into a cooperative for the Northland region. I think the Leigh model is a good one. We could export a premium product under our own brand name.”
John Goodwin, part-Maori and a kind of Machiavellian godfather to the fishing port of Mangonui, sat at his desk overlooking the harbour. His company, Moana Pacific, is two-thirds owned by the Waitangi Fisheries Commission.
On his wall are two big colour photos of fishing vessels, both now on the bottom.
“Fishing is an excellent way to go broke,” he told me. With uncharacteristic delicacy, he described Dover Samuels’ plans as “poetry.”
“A lovely idea,” he said. “But local cooperatives would need hot, sharp dudes to run them. Where are they going to find them? You need people steeped in fishing culture.” It takes years to learn the intricacies of the industry, the arcane complexities of the quota system, the seasonal shifts in species availability. He is mildly contemptuous of born-again Maori who push the wheelbarrow of “aquaculture,” a buzz word, he says.
Mangonui hosts about 30 boats: cray and scallop boats, most of which convert to longlining for deep-water species like bluenose and hapuku in the off season. One of the first whaling stations, and the most northerly deep-water port in New Zealand, Mangonui once thronged with the ribald and raunchy sailors who set the tone of fishing culture in this country.
Johnny Goodwin’s uncles and grandfather fished the Hokianga and Kaipara Harbours—both backwaters these days, largely because they have been fished out. Flounder and mullet are still caught, but the quotas are too high, he says. “So long as these decisions are in political hands . . . well, no politician is going to leap to his feet and cry, ‘Save the grey mullet!’ is he?”
On the ground floor of the mock-colonial edifice housing Johnny Goodwin’s office is the Fresh and Tasty fish and chip shop, one of the most northerly in the country, and certainly one of the best. Each night, Johnny’s business partner, Irene, who is married to a local set-netter, performs routine alchemy on the local fish.
I located the set-netter, Ken Yardley, in his living room above the shop. He was a man under siege, surrounded by sacks of flour and piles of newsprint used to wrap the takeaways. Amongst it all, a television chirped. He was also under siege from those who wish to turn the historic fishing port of Mangonui into an expensive retirement village. Petitions abound to move commercial fishing plant from the wharves.
Ken Yardley lays 3000 metres of stationary nets on the seabed anywhere between the Cavalli Islands and North Cape. His catch is mainly shark, but he takes trevally, gurnard and kahawai as well. The nets, each about 500 metres long, are laid according to the shape of the bottom and prevailing tides.
The net is played out or “split” over the back of the boat by two crewmen. A weighted line holds the lower edge on the bottom, and a float line keeps the net upright. The nets are set before dusk and picked up the next morning. A good day will yield a tonne of fish, but the hazards of set-netting are many. They include the delinquent spiny dogfish, which can tear the weave of a net, and storms which clog the nets with weed.
Set-netting is one of the cheapest methods of fishing: fuel costs are low and no bait is required. Which is why set-netters thrive in smaller ports like Houhora after longliners have been forced out of business.
Danish seining is the other main method of inshore fishing. I scoured maritime pubs in search of information on the best man at the game. All fingers pointed to a Whitianga fisherman by the name of Phil Clow.
In our first conversation, by cellphone, he sounded a little tense. He was 10 miles off the coast near Red Mercury Island and his net was stuck on a rock 100 metres below the surface. Even the best, it seems, screw up.
“After a storm, the seabed changes. Rocks are exposed,” he explained. “You can’t predict anything in this game.” But by the next day Clow was at the wharf and sounding happier. For three days he had caught nothing. But the night before, on the full moon, he had taken a boatload in three shots. He stood beside the hatch in heavy plastic coat and pants while his crewmen dragged tonnes of fish out of the hold.
It was a dull morning, with mist and low cloud wreathing the dramatic headlands across the Whitianga channel. Small boats moored in the stream emerged from the drizzle as spectral shapes. An ice truck had its rear end hoisted out over Clow’s boat, as in some strange mating ritual. Bins of fish were hoisted up and disappeared inside.
“Fishing is addictive,” said Phil as an iced crate passed his head. “The thrill never goes.” I could see why. Danish seining is a beguiling and sneaky method of fishing in which a mile-long lead-filled rope is laid down on the seabed in a huge loop, then drawn in by the boat. The fish are frightened into the sock end of a net placed mid-loop.
It’s a bit like beating for grouse in the Scottish Highlands. You only know at the last moment whether you’ve caught something. “The fish aren’t in the net for long,” said Phil, “so they’re in better shape than trawled fish.”
A crate of John Dory passed by. Although almost perversely unattractive, Dory fetches a high price because it has good shelf life and produces fine fillets.
Next up was a crate of metre-long fish with luminescent skin, like tin foil. Barracouta. Phil prised open the jaws to reveal bladelike eye teeth. Fierce and unlovely. “Not good commercially,” he said. “They’re full of worms.”
He picked up something that looked like a prop from Alien 3. “A stargazer,” he said with distaste.
Phil is president of the Coromandel, Whitianga and Whangamata Fishermen’s Association and is a fan of the quota system. He admits that there are fishermen who rip off the system, but says their number is small. The most prevalent form of abuse is dumping unwanted fish at sea. It is done for two reasons: to get rid of bycatch for which the fisherman has no quota, and to improve the catch quality of the fish for which he does have quota.
The bycatch problem is a difficult one. No matter how skilful a fisherman is in targeting one kind of fish, he will catch others as well. What is he to do with them? Ideally, he will have quota to cover the bycatch, but that doesn’t always happen.
“I’ll get my head bitten off for saying this,” Phil told me, “but companies don’t always behave responsibly. They won’t cover a boat with the spread of quota it needs.”
Suppose a company leases trevally and gurnard quota to a fisherman but won’t lease snapper as well. The fisherman has the choice of illegally dumping the snapper he hauls aboard or bringing it in and copping a hefty fine. So half a tonne of dead fish goes over the side and washes up next to the bath of the local member of Parliament.
“High grading”—increasing the profitability of a catch by discarding inferior fish—is also a problem under the current regime. “Responsible fishermen now dob in anyone they see doing it,” said Clow. “It is one of the reasons we’re threatened with quota reductions.”
In recent years, the Ministry of Fisheries has been using helicopters and light planes to search coastal waters for the telltale ponds of dead fish. The Air Force also helps find boats which are fishing illegally.
Like Mark Semmons when I met him, Phil Clow had just worked 48 hours without sleep: “You learn to trick your body. But you can only do it if you eat well. High-energy food, like meat.” Commercial fishing is punishing on relationships as well as bodies: “I’m fortunate. I’ve been through one marriage—too much time away from home. But my current wife used to come out fishing with me when we were courting. She likes it. We go away on the boat in summer with the kids.
“That’s the secret. You’ve got to have a woman who understands. Fishing plays hell with your social life.”
I told him of Ian Boyce’s view that the wives of fishermen are tough, independent characters. “Without a doubt,” he said with a trace of irony. “I have yet to see a fisherman’s wife who doesn’t have a strong personality.”
Perhaps it’s in the culture. Most of the fishermen I met seemed to have a predisposition towards plain speaking and warmth. Direct, friendly, but with a certain caution about them. You sense beneath the discipline of their lives a wry amusement at the terrestrial world and its ways.
I took the lift to the Ministry of Fisheries’ 16th-floor offices in the nation’s capital. The lobby was undergoing renovations, and security was tight. Feeling about the ministry runs high on the high seas, and I wondered whether the staff here ever had to stave off gaff-wielding fishermen.
I sat at a board table with three senior policy people, high above a windswept Wellington Harbour. With patience and lucidity, Jane Willing and Mark Edwards explained the logic of the snapper cuts in the north-east and the tagging programmes that have established the low numbers of snapper there.
They talked of the quota management system and the principle of sustainability: catches should not reduce a fish stock below a level at which that stock can maintain its size. In the last decade or so, many fisheries worldwide have collapsed through neglect of this principle.
In New Zealand, certain stocks are still below safe levels of sustainability. Orange roughy (a deep-sea species), rock lobster and the ubiquitous snapper are vulnerable.
“But there are an awful lot of species we know very little about. Trevally, John Dory, gurnard. They seem to be OK,” said Kevin Sullivan, a science policy man with the ministry. But research funding is scant, and deductions about stock levels are, at best, an educated guess.
The ministry people recounted the changes which have taken place in inshore fishing in the last 20 years. Since the demand for iki jime snapper arose in South-East Asia, there has been a move towards “boutique” fishing and away from the crude harvesting of a few core species.
Fishers now target a variety of species across the fishing year. Danish seine and trawl fishermen try to minimise damage to fish by towing for shorter periods. They handle the fish they bring on deck with greater care and frequently use the longliner’s iki spike method themselves. Companies ensure that their distribution and marketing systems are sharper and more sophisticated.
I put it to Jane Willing, acting policy director, that despite the growth of the fishing industry (now producing $1.3 billion-worth of fish, 90 per cent of it exported), current policies were exterminating small fishermen and decimating traditional coastal communities.
“Many nations subsidise traditional communities to preserve their way of life and values,” she admitted. “But our government has made a call that because this kind of assistance hasn’t been extended to other primary industries, like sheep farming, it won’t happen in fishing either.”
And so, in the sober, inexorable logic of the market, a traditional way of life is extinguished. It was this kind of logic, of course, in the Douglas-Prebble years, that cauterised the soul of many small New Zealand communities and changed our heartland for good.
To my charge that the Ministry seemed oblivious to the plight of the small fisherman, they answered that Ministry officers and networks were active at a local level. They took part in “consultative mechanisms” with fishers, Maori, environmental groups.
“We are managing a coalition of interests that compete and conflict,” said Willing. “We have to be impartial.”
And yet, and yet . . . It all seemed so detached from the reality of what is happening to small fishers.
Barry of the Ikatere, Mark of the Bona Dea and Phil of the Poseidon—they struck me as the sort of characters who must once have peopled this nation—tough, enigmatic, independent. And just as their livelihoods are threatened, so too the fishing communities which embody their values may soon cease to exist—lost to the encroachment of a bland corporate culture. They deserve better than to be relegated to an idiosyncratic footnote to history.
On a freezing June night, alongside the piles of cordage and the stinking puddles of diesel on Auckland’s Western Viaduct, I stepped aboard the commercial fishing trawler Serenity. The boat had returned to port the previous day, running from a violent southerly storm that had sunk the Cook Strait trawler Chance and drowned its two-man crew.
The storm was about to lift, the ship due to sail again: a two-day steam around North Cape to the gemfish grounds in the Tasman Sea.
Skipper Possum, swarthy, unshaven, was jammed into the tiny galley, drinking coffee. Deckhand Luke was pacing the deck with a cellphone, whipping the air with a hand visibly short of two fingers, saying goodbye to his girlfriend in Tauranga. Gemfish and romance, it seems, are uneasy bedfellows.
A half-eaten leg of mutton sat on the gas cooker in the corner of the galley. A bottle of tomato sauce and another of salt were sunk in stormproof recesses in the tiny table, beside an ashtray made from a crushed tin can. Luke joined us, the girlfriend reconciled to another lonesome Saturday night. He and Possum lit cigarettes.
Possum started out as a trapper and deer hunter but turned to fishing in his 20s. He is the “bad boy” of the Viaduct Basin fleet: a hard drinker ashore, but apparently respected for his tough approach to the job. Something of an eccentric, his preferred fishing garb in summer is underpants and jandals, regardless of the occasional girlfriend of a crewman aboard. He doesn’t touch the booze at sea and is said to be reliable to the point of sainthood.
Luke, a curly-headed boy with a musical voice, has always been a fisherman. He lost his fingers in a winch accident. We talked of safety on the Serenity.
“She’s a bit rough,” said Luke, gesturing at the cramped accommodation. “But safe enough. The only way she’d go down is if you let water in. And that would be stupidity.”
I thought about the Chance. And the Maria Louisa that Rollov had earned his stripes on. Then there was the trawler San Manukau, a sister ship from the Viaduct Basin fleet that “fell over” on a perfectly fine day in summer and drowned one of its crew.
With the onset of winter, most of the Auckland fleet is chasing gemfish, a deep-sea species weighing up to 10 kilograms that resembles barracouta. A few years ago, the lucrative gemfish, which is exported, would start shoaling on the Motiti Ledge of the continental shelf in May, move to the Aldermen, then the Poor Knights, and then by July be caught off Ninety Mile Beach in the Tasman.
Now the Motiti and Aldermen are fished out and the only remaining solid gemfish fishing is west of Northland. Increasingly, the smaller boats are being driven to the deeper, rougher water at the edge of the shelf. The day before, said Luke, while running from the storm, the Serenity had been on her ear and he had been standing on the cupboard beside us.
A practical man, Possum says rough weather is the best conservation method for dwindling fish stocks: “Half the year you shouldn’t be able to fish.” He gestured to a huge trawler belonging to a competitor fleet moored nearby: “The big ships have arrived this year. They sail in any weather. They go around the beds like vacuum cleaners.”
Possum looked despondent. The Serenity used to be the premier ship in the Simunovich fleet. It has been superseded by larger boats even in its own fleet, and in terms of catch tonnage is now number four in the league table. Fourth out of four.
Luke tried to cheer up his skipper. “There’s still fish out there,” he said, peering through the wheelhouse window.
In a blaze of deck lights, Serenity kicked away from the wharf in an elegant sideways manoeuvre and started the long slog back out to the fishing grounds.