Mussel farmer strikes Coromandel gold

17:05, Aug 10 2014
Coromandel mussel farmer Gilbert James.
SUNRISE INDUSTRY: Coromandel mussel farmer Gilbert James.

When other Kiwis his age were taking free bus rides with their senior's card, Gilbert James was thundering across wild terrain at full gallop on horseback.

Despite not participating in organised equestrian events until in his mid-50s, Gilbert took to riding with the same conviction that has seen him become one of the country's larger independent mussel farmers.

"A chap here at Coromandel invited us to do a trial ride one day on a farm. When my horse took off at full gallop across the country side and jumped a hedge, it was so much fun that I was hooked right at the start," Gilbert said.

Despite the risk of serious injury that would come with a fall for the now 72-year-old, the adventure and challenge and connection with nature that riding provides has kept Gilbert in the saddle for over two decades.

"I have really enjoyed riding on the backs of good horses across country side that you never get to see otherwise. I've ridden on stations that I used to shear on. I've seen a lot of the North Island.

"I was improving all the time and was still getting better into my 60s.

"I still ride but every year I revaluate and I'm taking it a bit easier these days."

It's the same spirit of adventure and challenge that has kept him farming Greenshell mussels for over 30 years.

"My time farming mussels has been extraordinarily interesting and exciting. I'm just so lucky to have had that opportunity to have been in a sunrise industry.

"It's been decades of hard work, innovation and challenge – all the good things. I think back and think gosh what an exciting ride it's been.

"I'm still excited."

It was a ride that started when Gilbert first recognised the opportunity of aquaculture.

"My family has lived in Coromandel for four generations.

"When I was a boy, the area was renowned for the wild mussel beds that covered the Hauraki Gulf.

"But the '60s saw the virtual disappearance of the mussel beds.

"I knew there was a market in Auckland because during my shearing days, you would hear people talk about getting a coal sack of mussels for 5 shillings, and 10 shillings on the Coromandel Wharf and then later a pound.

"So I thought hell, if ever there was an opportunity a guy should farm mussels.

"I couldn't see it failing – I just had to learn how to farm them. There was a market just waiting."

Gilbert approached his father about leasing some of the family's 200 hectare property, a former gold mine purchased by his grandfather Arthur in the 1930s, at Preeces Point with direct harbour access.

"I didn't get enthusiastic about it until 1978 – but once I did, it became like a religious crusade in my head and from that, the people of Coromandel came to know me as a mussel farmer," he said.

"I had a good job that I should have been content with and I had four kids in Auckland, but I wanted to farm mussels.

"I went to Dad and said 'I'm going to be a mussel farmer and I think a good spot would be right here in this little bay'.

"At that stage, there was no mussel farming industry in Coromandel - just an opportunity.

"I put in a long line in the harbour with five-year experimental licence from Wellington.

"I still worked full time in my job in Auckland for two years after getting the licence and only left my job after I understood how to farm them and had proven that the market was there."

Gilbert named his business Gold Ridge Marine Farms in recognition of the history of his family's land, and over the decades has expanded that one line into farms covering 21.5 hectares of water space.

He has also worked to advance the wider industry, having called the first Coromandel Mussel Farming Association meeting in 1981 and served as its chairman ever since. He has also served on the original Mussel Industry Advisory Council and later as a director on the Aquaculture New Zealand Board since it was established in 2006.

But while Gilbert will be long remembered as a mussel farmer, he hopes his environmental efforts will also provide benefits for generations to come.

"In my spare time, I'm moving away from riding horses and focusing more on restorative planting projects to support native bird habitats on the property at Preeces Point, and at Warahoe Estate at Thames.

Like mussel farming, the restoration work has become a passion for Gilbert.

"I've just always been interested in the bush and coastline and I put that down to my days as a boy where I was allowed to run free and wild through the hills, streams and mud flats," he said.

"I believe as a human being we should have a natural affinity with our surrounding environment.

"I started planting about 25 years ago but really only got serious about it five years ago. It was like the penny dropped one day and I felt like I had to do it.

"I think it comes from my love of birds as a child. In the days before transistor radios, I took a huge interest in birds and bird songs. We used to whistle them, and try to catch them, and collect their eggs – they were a part of our lives.

"As I've got older, I've felt an obligation to maintain a habitat for them.

"I think a lot of people at my age can remember great amounts of fish and birds and wildlife and a lot of that has disappeared. It's a serious worry for me."

For Gilbert, working in balance with the environment is a non-negotiable part of the job.

"I feel exceptionally strongly about protecting our environment and local waterways.

"Over the past five years, I've brought the pest numbers right down and planted about 2000 native trees and I plan to put in few hundred more every year for many years to come.

"I'm lucky enough to have the property to do it, and I guess that's the obligation. I'll do my part in my lifetime and I hope it looks that good by the time I die that the work will continue long after I'm gone."

While some Kiwis his age will continue their journey by bus, Gilbert is not about to release his grip on the reins any time soon.