Working on the night shift

Clean out : 56,000 juvenile salmon are flushed from temperature controlled tanker trucks into a pen at King Salmon's Te Pangu farm.
Clean out : 56,000 juvenile salmon are flushed from temperature controlled tanker trucks into a pen at King Salmon's Te Pangu farm.

The barge skipper is waiting to take two TNL trucks packed with 56,000 juvenile salmon from Picton to a salmon farm at Te Pangu in Tory Channel.

It is 6.30pm on Wednesday and Picton man Kim O'Donnell navigates his barge, Lana, with the help of his son, technician Brayden O'Donnell. The concrete platform glides through the middle of a yacht race and out of Queen Charlotte Sound, while the tankers holding the salmon are pumped with sea water to prepare the freshwater smolt for life under King Salmon.

The reason for the trip is to deliver the young salmon, but it's inevitable that talk turns to King Salmon's application to develop nine new fish farms in the Sounds, eight of them in areas where aquaculture is banned.

The O'Donnells do not criticise the plan - the company is their biggest customer - but Mr O'Donnell believes there should be a condition that the processing is kept in Marlborough.

"Sign it up, lock it in up here.

"We will give you the water, but you should do the processing here - not like the mussels that are all done in Christchurch."

TNL truck driver Tony Rowell, from Pelorus Bridge, agrees. He works solely for King Salmon and wants to see the economic growth that could come with increased infrastructure. "If the greenies had their way, there wouldn't be any salmon in the Sounds or the jobs that come with it."

Te Pangu emits a soft neon-blue glow. King Salmon uses underwater lighting to slow down the fish's maturation process.

It's almost 9pm when plastic piping fitted to the sides of the tankers flushes the fish over the side of the barge and into a pen 25 metres by 25 metres.

Feeding technician Maurice Liberona said the farm produced 3500 tonnes of salmon a year from its 18 pens - and they are getting bigger. The company is planning to install pens 40m by 40m.

"You can't rely on old fisheries any more.

"We've been farming in the Sounds for the past 20-odd years - if we were hiding anything dodgy someone would've found out."

He has worked for King Salmon for 17 years, the past four on the farms.

No-one gets free salmon, but employees can buy it at a discounted rate.

"But you see so much of it, you don't really want it."

The majority of the workers are "shifties" from Marlborough, guys who live on floating accommodation at the farms, one week on, one week off, he said.

The barge pulls away about 9.30pm, all the young salmon transferred into the pens. It has been a smooth operation.

Sitting in the dark control room, Mr O'Donnell says the entire operation is run systematically.

The trucks are positioned on the barge to avoid any wasted time shifting them back and forth, when they could be piping out fish. He will be running a feeding trip tomorrow, delivering tonnes of dried pellets from Australia.

The truck driver is sleeping under the control room - he still has to drive home to Pelorus Sound - and talk turns to the Picton Maritime Festival. Life goes on.

"We normally have our dolphins swimming along with the barge: Woodstock, Bourbon and Shotgun." Shotgun earned his name because his fin was "sawn off by a fizz-boat propeller".

The Marlborough Express