Longliner tells us what it is like
Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 4 February 2007
Hard graft has its rewards for a tough breed - the contract fisherman. Tim Hunter goes longlining.
"I think they should put a ban on fishing in the Hauraki Gulf in schooling season. It's the biggest spawning ground," he says. "I'd like to see more reserves."
As the Tarquin chugs out of Whangarei harbour, Matt Caldwell leans back on his chair at the helm, hooks a white gumboot into the wheel and lights a roll-up.
"I haven't had a week off for about three years," he says.
"I love it but. I wouldn't do anything else. It's not the money that keeps me here, although the money's pretty good.
"I probably earn about $100,000 a year."
Tarquin, a wooden 50-footer built in Nelson in the 1970s, is the top longliner in the area and generated $600,000 in revenue last year. "Not bad for a $50,000 boat," says Caldwell.
Its skipper is well versed in the financial details of his job: for Caldwell and his crew, pay is directly related to the size of the catch. But the 37-year-old former Navy mechanic has other concerns.
Longlining, he says, is the future of the fishing industry.
Compared with trawling, longlining is a highly discriminating killer. Undersized fish can be thrown back alive, the impact on non-target fish species is minimal, and the superior quality of the catch delivers a higher price. "Sanford has come to the party and seen longlining's more sustainable," says Caldwell. "They've converted three of their trawlers - big ups to them for that."
For those at sea, however, it's hard-earned money.
In the three years Caldwell has skippered the Tarquin, he has had 35 deckhands. "That's mainly because they're young fellas, eh," he says. "Probably one in three guys that gives it a go will stay for a while."
"Most of 'em are uneducated so (the average pay of) $40,000 is pretty good money. One guy lost it over New Year and never came back. He was due his skipper's ticket. That really pissed me off."
Tarquin sails out past the huge oil refinery at Marsden Point in early afternoon and Caldwell's 15-year-old son David stands at the starboard rail chopping pilchards into thumb-sized chunks, discarding the heads. By the time he's finished there are thousands of pilchard pieces ready to be baited on stainless steel "suicide" hooks.
Older brother John, 18, has climbed onto the deckhouse roof where he sits smoking with the third crewman, Pene Tawhera, also 18. A radio blares from a speaker tied up with string beside the deckhouse door.
Today the target is Bream Bay for snapper and gurnard. Tarquin sells all its catch to Leigh Fisheries, a specialist exporter based on the coast near Warkworth. Each day, Leigh phones Caldwell with its order -which species, how much of each -and Tarquin aims to fulfil that demand, though it must land all legal fish.
At 3.30pm, with the Hen and Chicken islands to port, the radio is turned off. A tori line - effectively a long rope - is trailed astern to deter birds, though none come anywhere near. Then two red floats are secured to the end of the 100kg breaking-strain nylon line and dropped in the water.
As the line snakes out, Tawhera, his Billabong baseball cap on backwards, begins the set. He leans against a rough wooden table at the stern, the line over his left shoulder. On the table is a stack of "cards" -plywood squares carrying about 30 baited hooks on 60cm traces.
Every one-and-a-half seconds, Tawhera picks a trace from a card and clips it on the longline. For the next hour he doesn't stop. Whenever three cards are finished John replaces them with another three and Tawhera doesn't miss a beat. He's still not as fast as some: Caldwell reckons it takes two years to get really fast.
Every five minutes he attaches a white float in case the line breaks. John shouts "float" and his father in the wheelhouse marks the spot on the GPS navigator screen.
By 4.45pm the set is complete -2600 hooks spread over five nautical miles across Bream Bay - and Tarquin heads straight back to where it began.
At 5.30pm the radio is turned up again, blaring rock music from Radio Hauraki, and the haul begins. At first all the hooks are empty, but then the fish start to come in. Caldwell stands at the outside steering position, manoeuvring the boat and unclipping the hooks as they come over the side. Each fish is hefted wriggling to Tawhera who hugs it to his chest, iki-spikes it in the head, removes the hook and lays the fish on a conveyor belt.
No fish is allowed to drop into the ice tank. Instead, David picks each one off the conveyor and places it belly up in the ice, snapper in one tank, gurnard in the other.
The pace is relentless. There is no time to step away from the line even for a few seconds.
It's labour intensive, but handling each fish so carefully makes money. Leigh pays $3.30 a kilo, after quota-lease costs of $2.35/kg, for fresh snapper, still plump and pink-flushed from Tawhera's death grip. Fish brought in dead, silver and stiff as boards, make half that. Trawled fish, often crushed by the weight in the net, make $1.70 to $2.20 a kilo.
The haul finishes at 8pm. "Not good," says Caldwell. There are about 20 bins of fish, maybe $1000 worth. "The guys'll be pretty disappointed with that."
While his crew pack the fish on ice in bins, Caldwell cooks spaghetti bolognese in the wheelhouse that doubles as galley and lounge. The space is just big enough to swing a cat.
At 10pm the next set begins, closer inshore in shallow water where snapper like to feed at night.
At midnight they're hauling again and by the time Caldwell calls it quits at 3.30am they have set once again, ready for hauling the next day. He and his crew have been working for 16 hours straight.
Anchored in Urquharts Bay, the day begins again for Caldwell at 7.30am with a call from Leigh Fisheries. "Poor day. Twenty-three (bins of) snapper, six gurnard," he grunts.
The morning is spent hauling last night's line before Caldwell heads back to Whangarei to unload his catch. He's not happy with the results - 40 bins of snapper, about 600kg. "That's probably $2000 worth of fish in one day. That's a shit day," he says. "An average day is double that."
His catch records prove the point. In December Tarquin was typically landing 70-plus bins of fish. On Boxing Day it landed 134.
Caldwell would rather catch fewer, larger fish and get a higher price.
Tarquin's owner, John Murphy of Murphy Fishing Group, started fishing 30 years ago. "He was only setting 200 hooks and got $12-$15/kg for snapper. He only needed a dozen bins a day."
These days, "a third of the profit has gone to pay quota lease so the guys found they had to work a third harder, with 33% more hooks to make the same profit.
"The price of fish hasn't gone up in 10 years, whereas the price of diesel, bait and so on has tripled, so a lot of guys have folded."
The quota management system is working to a degree, he says. "But now they're talking about permits for recreational fishers and allocating some of our quota to them. I'd hate to see that happen."
As Tarquin sways on a slow swell towards Whangarei Heads, he offers some suggestions. "I think they should put a ban on fishing in the Hauraki Gulf in schooling season. It's the biggest spawning ground," he says. "I'd like to see more reserves."
The crew clean the boat, scrubbing out the ice tanks and washing the blood off the conveyor. Caldwell slumps into his chair at the helm and begins peeling an orange with an enormous knife.
"Forty bins," he mutters.
Catches of snapper, Tarquin's main target fish, have been controlled by the Quota Management System since 1986.
The QMS created tradeable fishing rights for the main fish species.
The total snapper quota was worth $406 million in 2004. In 1994 it was worth $864m.
Commercial interests must own or lease quota to gain the right to catch fish. Leigh Fisheries, which buys Tarquin's catch, owns half the quota it needs. The rest is leased, mainly from iwi such as Ngati Whatua.
This year, the QMS permits commercial fishers to catch 6367 tonnes of snapper in New Zealand waters. Most of that is allocated to two areas around the North Island -Snapper 1 and Snapper 8 -corresponding to the northeast and west coasts respectively.
The commercial snapper catch peaked in 1978, when 14,468 tonnes were landed from Snapper 1 and Snapper 8.
Total annual landings from the main snapper areas have been below 7000 tonnes since 1997.
Tarquin, which mainly fishes in Snapper 1, will catch about 120 tonnes of snapper a year.
Marketing companies such as Leigh Fisheries impose bin limits on vessels to spread the catch through the year. Tarquin must not catch more than 750kg a day.
In 2005, 4144 tonnes of snapper were exported, earning $26m, equivalent to about $6.30/kg. By dollars per tonne, snapper is one of New Zealand's top five seafood exports.
Export prices for snapper have fallen by 30% since 2001, before allowing for inflation.