School of Hard Knocks

Mar 29, 2017 Environment ,Environment

Commercial fishing off the Taranaki coast proved an excellent apprenticeship for a boy yearning to become a real seaman, but it also stirred unease about the damage dealt to sea life.

It was, quite literally at times, the school of hard knocks. But working on commercial fishing boats was the only way a Taranaki boy besotted by boats could get to sea.

I didn’t want to be a weekend yachtie – I yearned to be a real seaman – one of the fearless, devil-may-care, self-reliant subspecies that had bred Kupe, Cook, Shackleton, Scott and Worsley. Men of the sea – a breed apart from the land-lubbers I’d endured growing up.

The boats were mostly wooden-planked and a 50-foot trawler was considered a big boat among the half dozen or so working out of Port Taranaki. The engines were moderate horsepower but big metal: 8L3 Gardners, D6 Caterpillars and Detroit 6/71s.

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I seemed to have an affinity with machinery and did an ad hoc apprenticeship in engine maintenance on a Gardner. This wonderful machine developed 200hp at 800rpm but contained enough metal in it to build two Toyota Starlets.

I learned to start it on minimal battery power – even with an anxious-to-sail skipper (who’d left the lights on in the first place…) yelling instructions and abuse down the engine room hatch.

I quickly learned that the engine room was the warmest, driest part of the boat and would dive down there at the slightest excuse to sit beside the Gardner and watch it at work. I gave the old engine what would have been one of the few oil changes of its hardworking lifetime and poured gallons of clean oil into its innards. “Christ, that must have cost us a few cases of fish,” the skipper commented. “Wasting bloody money…”

We would chug out of port with the skipper thumbing through a worn notebook of navigational marks and bearings until the bottom topography shown by the sounder tallied loosely with the landmarks from his notes. The notebook was treated like it contained the combination to the lock at Fort Knox and many skippers took theirs to bed with them when they turned in.

I’m a compulsive reader and my right ear still smarts at times from the clout it received after a skipper came into the wheelhouse while I was on watch and caught me leafing through his notebook. “Trying to steal my bloody fish, eh?” he said.

There was no GPS or EPIRBS and echo sounders were rudimentary black and white affairs which recorded their data on rolls of paper. “Bloody Japs are making a fortune out of us,” the skipper would grumble as the paper tumbled from the Furuno onto the wheelhouse floor.

Reliable weather forecasts were a rarity. We’d wake to National Radio’s 03h00 coastal weather bulletin, tap the barometer and pour our first Nescafe of the day before a breakfast of bacon, eggs and sausages.

We’d listen to the 04h00 weather repeat, then one of us would dive down to the engine room, check engine and gearbox oil and coolant, turn the start batteries on and push the button that brought the Gardner rumbling into life.

While it warmed up we’d down our second cup of Nescafe, then ease her into gear and, when everything lined up, launch the gear.

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The first thing overboard was the thick, heavy mesh of the cod end which the netted fish would end up crammed into, then the ground chain that would drag along the sea floor below us rattled over the stern, followed by the buoys of the head line. Then the wire rope sweeps snaked over the stern with the heavy wooden trawl doors – until the wire warps ground and pinged as they unpeeled from the winch drums.

We aimed for a scope of about 5:1 – five times the length of warp to the water depth.

When the gear was set the engine note would settle to a steady throb and the ‘tow’ would begin. Leaving the skipper on watch, we’d dive back between our clammy bedclothes to grab more sleep. Two are things are always in short supply for a young man on a trawler – sleep and food.

Depending on the depth of sleep, the reduction in engine revolutions would wake us and we’d tumble out of bed and pull on our boots. We all wore thigh waders in those days – rolled up to full length to wade through water or fish on deck, and rolled down in a fetchingly piratical fashion for other occasions. They could also cause the death of any trawler man who fell overboard – when they filled with sea and sucked him down to a watery grave.

My bible became The Trawler Mens’ Handbook – a text for would-be trawler men working the North Sea and Icelandic waters.

As the way came off the boat, the winch would be engaged and the cables ground back aboard. We sharpened our filleting knives on the straining wire in anticipation and peered over the stern until the trawl doors re-emerged from the deep and were shackled to the gallows. The wire sweeps ground directly onto the drum until the net popped to the surface a few metres astern and within a few minutes we’d have it floating beside the boat.

Now came the hard work. As the boat rolled down towards the net, we’d frantically haul the wings aboard hand-over-hand. When the boat rolled the other way, we’d pin the gathered mesh with our knees while it squealed against the bulwarks, taking care not to crush fingers or be dragged overboard.

Arduously, fistful by fistful, we recovered the mesh. The net, made buoyant by the distended swim bladders of thousands of fish, floated alongside and, timed to the rolls of the wallowing trawler, was dragged over the rail.

Finally, we could lift the ‘bag’ – or cod end. It would be hauled aboard by block and tackle on a small derrick called a Gillson. This is the dangerous part of trawling – when a couple of tonnes of fish are suspended over the side metres above the deck, moving the vessel’s centre of gravity upwards and outboard and causing a radical reduction in stability.

Then it’s swung inboard, the knot holding the purse end pulled, and a pile of dead and dying fish spill over the deck. All the caught fish are dead, or close to it, their bodies bent in a silent agony by the bends, swim bladders bulging pink from their mouths.

Trawler crew are paid on shares of the catch and an experienced hand could cast an eye over the dead sea life on deck and guesstimate the wages that each tow would pay him. On one trip during the Nelson snapper season, I swaggered ashore, had a few beers and bought a brand-new motorbike. It sat on the Nelson waterfront for four days while I did two trips back-to-back, and looked like a public convenience for seagulls by the time I got back.

The really hard work started when the fish were on board. Some species could be stowed whole below; others would have to be headed and gutted or filleted. For hours, we’d stoop over the gradually reducing pile of fish, braced against the trawler’s roll, while the swathe of death-dealing net gouged across the sea floor below us.

Using the roll of the boat to our advantage we would stow the 30-40kg fish cases in the hold, grab a bite to eat and, if we were lucky, get an hour or two in bed before the boat slowed and the gear began
to slowly come back aboard and we’d start all over again.

At first I loved it; at sea, working hard, earning good money and learning how to be a seaman. There was no Coastguard – we trawlermen looked after each other. I remember taking two 200-litre metal drums of fuel out to another boat that had run dry in a gale off Cape Egmont.

We rolled heavily and in breaking seas the 200kg drums broke loose on deck and smashed from side to side between the bulwarks while we huddled in the wheelhouse deciding what to do. Eventually one chap rushed out with a scaffolding plank and wedged the drums against the side. We managed to roll the drums overboard to be recovered by crew of the stricken boat using ropes we’d tied round them.

But gradually, I began to take notice of the fish, their bodies contorted in agony by the time they’d been dumped on the wooden deck. We killed everything that fell foul of the net, threw the unviable species overboard where they’d float in an accusing fan around the boat. Behind us, below the waves, a broad swathe of sea floor would be scraped clean, leaving a desert of mangled molluscs and other fauna and flora.

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In time, the little coastal trawlers became big steel factories with video echo sounders, bigger nets, bigger engines, larger crews and bigger mortgages – which had to fish harder and catch more to pay for their inflated operating expenses.

Guided by GPS, they returned to precisely the same trawl grounds time and time again. By-catches became huge and areas of reef that smaller trawlers steered clear of because they could hook up and damage gear, were favoured ground for big trawlers using steel bobbins on the ground line to bounce across the sea floor, crushing everything in their path.

Modern trawlers range all over the oceans. Being a trawlerman isn’t different any more. It’s become just
another factory job – but one which could destroy our oceans. Technology has enabled trawlers to target their catch more efficiently. The orange roughy which schooled around the summits of undersea mounts are all but fished out and hoki, which are targeted by joint venture and local trawlers in Cook
Strait and off Hokitika, look set to follow them.

A fishing method that caught everything in its path and destroyed sea floor habitats was always idiocy – and is even more so now.