Riches from the deep
Life on board a Talley's trawlerBILL MOORE
The hoki season is in full swing. Across the horizon from the South Island's West Coast, hundreds of fishermen and factory staff are working around the clock as they harvest and process one of New Zealand's greatest seafood resources. Bill Moore accepted an invitation from the Talley's Group to see the annual effort first hand:
Andy Smith and I are on the Amaltal Atlantis about 25 nautical miles (46 kilometres) off the West Coast. He's chatting amiably with the skipper and some senior crew members. I'm in a chair in the corner of the bridge, eyes closed, saying nothing and feeling very, very sick.
It's been this way for a couple of hours. To my immense relief, it won't stay like it.
We got there by crossing the Westport Bar aboard a fast launch, the Talister, skippered by 59-year-old surfing fanatic Bob McLean, who tells me he's on the Coast for the waves and goes out on his six-foot (1.8 metre) board most days year round. Good man to have in charge crossing a notorious river bar, I tell myself.
The Atlantis has come in to 3 miles (6.5km) off the coast to get us. We clamber from the Talister into a small Zodiac, make a short bouncy ride to the side of the ship and are winched aboard, boat and all. That's the moment when I should accept skipper Greg Lyall's offer of some precautionary seasickness pills. But having never been more than mildly uncomfortable at sea in the past, I decline.
Mistake. As we begin the long journey to the fishing grounds 40 nautical miles (75km) out I notice an unfamiliar feeling in my stomach, which soon translates into the knowledge that, at 58, I'm finally discovering how horrible seasickness can be - and the further we go, the bigger the sea gets.
It's nothing to Captain Smith, who has welcomed the opportunity to be my minder for the three-day visit to the Atlantis. These days he's the operations manager for Talley's Nelson division, but his previous life includes being a coastal skipper at 19 and earning his deepsea skipper's ticket at 23, making him one of the country's youngest ever, and just in time to be among the pioneers of the orange roughy fishery.
He's now 52 and in between times he brought in New Zealand's first longliner, the Mary Anne, for Sealord, bought his own boat and went toothfishing in the Ross Sea, and has developed fisheries in South America and South Africa. He's been a consultant to overseas companies and governments and he sits on several industry bodies, meeting regularly with government officials to thrash out agreements and policies.
Not bad for a boy who went fishing at 15, straight out of Waimea College - and this story, a rise to seniority by people who left school early and unqualified - is one I'll hear a lot on my trip.
Captain Smith prides himself on being a straight talker and he says the fishing industry has a history of being unfairly caned by media-savvy environmentalists.
It's time, he says, to change that, for people to learn more about what his industry does and the people who work in it.
"The New Zealand fishing industry has nothing to hide, and should hide nothing," he has told me on the drive to Westport.
"Put all your cards on the table, and people know you're not bullshitting."
So here I am, given unfettered access to the 65-metre factory trawler and everyone on board. Now all I have to do is get well enough to move about and talk to them.
Luckily for me and the assignment, I sleep well and wake up early the next morning feeling fine. Over the next day and a half I am able to see for myself what I've heard about, read about and saw from the distance of a Navy patrol vessel and its rigid inflatable boat last season.
It's a highly professional and closely judged operation, I soon learn. My assumption that everything is organised around catching lots of fish as fast as possible is laughably wide of the mark.
What in fact happens aboard the Atlantis and other Kiwi boats is that the fishing effort is co-ordinated with the factory's ability to process the catch while it is fresh. Instead of the factory workers trying to keep up with what is being hauled over the stern, the skipper organises his catch to ensure a steady supply of fresh hoki, catching more when the factory is ready.
In terms of value, the fresher the fish the better. Skinless hoki steaks are the premium product, followed by skinless fillets, skin-on fillets and finally "block" as the clock ticks and the quality begins to decline. What's left over, the head and bones, known as frames, is cooked in the fishmeal plant and separated into powdered meal and oil. All that goes over the side is dirty water with a few tiny scraps mixed in.
Captain Smith predicts that within a decade or so the bigger value will come from byproducts such as collagen from fish skins, with the fillets relegated to "paying for the fuel". Right now though, the fishmeal pong is inescapable. First mate Daryn Price later puts it like this: "It's a bit overpowering but, as the boss says, it smells like money."
The Atlantis alternates between bottom trawling - generally more successful during the day at this part of the season - and midwater trawling at night, using different nets for each method. That's a bottom around 400-450m deep. It takes 15-20 minutes to set the enormous nets, made in Nelson by another fishing industry success story, Motueka Nets.
It's hard to get my head around, but the biggest mesh in the midwater net is 16m wide, gradually decreasing towards the cod end. With such enormous gaps, it's the vibration of the 120m wide net that herds the fish towards the end.
Watching it go over the stern is almost impossibly complicated, with the scurrying deck crew unravelling tangles, connecting and disconnecting cables while the skipper handles the release of the net and wires from a high-tech control panel at the rear of the bridge.
Then it's towed until net sensors signal that the right amount of fish is in the net. The Atlantis aims for 15-20 tonnes, which can take anything from minutes to hours, depending on how the fish gather and how good the skipper is at netting them. That's five to six hours of processing. The first fish into the factory are processed and ready for freezing less than 30 minutes after being emptied from the net.
At its peak, when the hoki are closely concentrated for spawning, this ship can catch around a tonne a minute. At the other end of the scale, one tow while I was on board lasted for several hours. But at no stage did the factory ever run out of fish to process.
It’s an astonishingly efficient operation, so finely judged that often the skipper will shadow schooling fish on his bewildering array of sounders and screens until the factory lets him know that it’s time to shoot the net and bring in some more.
In the factory it’s all noise, movement, flowing water and hard work. The fish is pushed from pounds at the stern on to a conveyer where it’s sorted by hand but headed, gutted and filleted by machines before being graded, trimmed, packed, weighed, frozen already boxed in plate freezers and stored at -30 degrees in the hold.
The factory team work six hours on, six off, with a 20-minute break in the middle. That’s their way of life for six weeks at a stretch.
Hell? Not if you ask them. From a 16-year-old at the beginning of his career to the 52-year-old chief engineer, everyone I interviewed not only told me they liked the job, but also obviously took pride in it.
Of course the money is a big factor. Everyone is paid a retainer and a balance according to production. If it’s all going well – as it is this hoki season – teenagers can be earning $50,000 a year, with the chance of doubling that if they graduate to a more senior role after a few years at sea. Skippers can earn as much as or more than the prime minister.
At the entry level it’s two trips on, one off. It means a lot of time away from home, but also that for two-thirds of the year food and lodging are free. I’m repeatedly told of individuals and couples who own their own places when barely out their teens, and others who are able to spend all their leave time travelling the world.
Once a senior role is achieved, it’s trip on, trip off, an added appeal. Sources across the industry, including competitors, say that Talley’s deep-sea boats are the gold standard for crew accommodation and general conditions.
Although built in Norway 21 years ago, the Atlantis is spick and span, with few obvious signs of its age. Cabins are small but adequate, with en suite bathrooms.
There are nine women in this crew and, a surprise to me, couples are an accepted feature. There are four and if they happen to be assigned to a four-person room, the shifts are arranged so that the couple have the room to themselves with the other pair on the opposite shift. It’s all single bunks, though. (‘‘We come here to work,’’ one couple telling me. ‘‘Home is for fun.’’)
There’s Sky TV on a big screen in the comfortable mess and it’s also available on small screens in the cabins, along with a large selection of movies on DVD. There’s a shared internet terminal for emails via satellite.
Then there’s the great food. Cook Raywin Sinclair, whose dhhusband Dave is the chief engineer, says she’s been at sea for so long she doesn’t work from a regimented menu plan.
‘‘It’s not restaurant food we do out here, it’s like home food,’’ she says. Then I arrive in the mess for dinner to find a choice of roast beef, roast chicken drumsticks, lamb shanks or crab cakes with peach salsa, accompanied by potatoes au gratin, asparagus, and a selection of salads. It’s all delicious. Oh, and an intricately-decorated birthday cake for a crew member, and the variety of fresh breads that Mrs Sinclair gets up at 4am to bake.
She also provides treats like afghans, muffins and fruitcake for the breaks, explaining that while it doesn’t happen on all boats, she likes to cater for all four ‘‘smokos’’.
‘‘I tend to make sure they have a decent smoko because some of them rely on it. Small and often’s good.’’
Deepsea boats in general and Talley’s in particular tend to get little publicity unless something goes wrong. It’s one of the reasons why their crews aren’t particularly fond of the media.
The Atlantis, however, has a special claim to fame. This is the boat that in August 2010 rescued the 45 freezing survivors from the sinking of the Korean charter boat Oyang 70, a tragedy which put the spotlight on the treatment of foreign fishermen, especially Indonesian crew on Korean boats, and nudged the Government into an inquiry and regulation changes.
A framed letter of appreciation from the Korean Society of Christchurch hangs in the ship’s bridge. ‘‘Without your crew’s effort it is doubtful if there would have been any survivors,’’ it says.
Captain Lyall was in command that day when six men from the Oyang 70 lost their lives 750km southeast of Dunedin. It’s a measure of how people in the fishing industry operate that the only way his non-seagoing friends in Christchurch found out his job was captaining a $30 million factory trawler with 42 crew was when the story of the rescue broke. He had simply told them that he worked on a boat and left it at that.
The reticence is partly because people in the industry feel they’ve had a raw deal from the media and partly because what they do happens out of sight and is difficult to demonstrate to the shoreside population.
A key point to emerge from my visit was that it’s not only bad things that happen over the horizon, but lots of good ones, like efficient, round-the-clock sustainable fishing by professional crews who are part of a thriving export industry helping to feed the world.
But there is the bad, too.
All the senior people I spoke to are utterly convinced that foreign boats, particularly Korean ones, are breaking the rules by overfishing and then dumping the excess catch at night, when on-board observers are asleep and the fish going back into the water can’t be seen from the air.
They say it’s done to maximise value by dumping the older catch and replacing it with freshly-caught fish. Boats are often fishing close to one another and seeing the foreign charter fleet in constant action is galling to the New Zealanders.
The day before I arrived the Atlantis counted 24 boats fishing off the West Coast: seven Kiwi, plus the Government research ship Tangaroa, six Russian or Ukrainian and 10 Korean. The Kiwis seethe in describing what they believe is happening outside the view of officialdom. Some of their comments are unprintable.
That’s a different story, and one Captain Smith assures me has a long way to run over the next 12 months via investigations and the courts.
What I can verify is an obviously happy ship which puts teamwork to the fore, crewed by likeable, no-nonsense Kiwis who all adhere to the sustainability mantra, seeking to take no more fish than can be caught year after year into the long-term future.
It’s not for everyone. Some don’t make it and some realise after a day or two at sea that they don’t want to. While I’m on the Atlantis there’s radio traffic about several new crew members on another company’s boat demanding to be put ashore. And not every company has a quota mix that enables a pay structure like on the Talley’s boats. For those who do take to it, as far as I can tell, it’s a satisfying life and on the Atlantis, at least, there’s almost a family atmosphere.
On Thursday as we prepare to climb into the Zodiac to be winched down for the transfer back to the Talister, I also get a reminder the tradition of shipboard rumour is alive and well.
One of the young factory hands asks me how I’m feeling.
‘‘Good, now,’’ I respond. ‘‘I felt really crook on Tuesday night, but at least I didn’t spew.’’
He throws me a doubting look. ‘‘I was told you spewed.’’
Meet the crew
Skipper Greg Lyall, 34, from Christchurch
Going to Waimea College in Richmond, Captain Lyall was "more of the type that wanted to go and do stuff rather than sit in the classroom". He left early, tried a couple of shore jobs and then went to sea as a factory hand on the Amaltal Voyager.
Just before he turned 30, he was promoted from first mate on the Amaltal Enterprise to his present job.
There's no secret to how he got there, he says.
"I worked my arse off. Now it's paid off."
His shift is from 1pm to 1am, with first mate Daryn Price covering the other 12 hours. But he rises at 11am and goes to bed at about 3.30 after finishing his paperwork and looking over the ship.
The goal is to "fish for the factory", making sure that it's processing fish that are as fresh as possible, while never running out.
He keeps closely in touch with what's happening in the factory and talks to his crew at every opportunity, "just to make everyone feel equal and get as much information as I can".
"You're at the top here, but all the money's being made and all the stuff's being done down there."
Some new crew don't fit and don't come back, others settle in once they're slotted into the right factory niche, he says.
"A guy I've got down there, he's now 22. He started when he was 17, he was a right little toe-rag, a smart, cheeky little boy. The last two trips he's filled in as bosun for me. He's one of the top crew - and he bought his own house when he was 21."
Captain Lyall, who is married to a former factory manager on the Atlantis, says it's great to be able to spend "fulltime" with his nine and 13-year-old daughters when he's ashore, rather than the weekends that go with a land-based job. "I just love being out here, being at sea. It's a good life. You're a tight team and everyone gets along. It's a family, a real big family."
He remembers the 2010 sinking of the Korean trawler Oyang 70, after which the Atlantis rescued the 45 survivors, as "an extremely big day".
"I'd only just gone to bed when it happened and I think I was up for 2 to three days. I was very proud of the whole crew - I had three new people on, 17-year-olds, but everyone handled it well."
Factory hand Luke Soper, 16, from Invercargill,
It's only Luke's second trip but he's decided that this is the life for him. A farm boy with a bit of crayfishing in his background, he's already got $10,000 in the bank towards his goal, a house.
"I got NCEA level one and then I thought, ‘School's not for me, I'd rather go out and do hands-on work'."
He says the six-hour shifts were "a bit hard to get used to for a start" and that he got lost on the boat to begin with, but now feels at home and appreciates being moved around the various work stations in the factory.
"It's really good. I enjoy it. I never thought I'd meet a lot of people like I have, from all over the country, not just Nelson."
The food is "the best part - especially the desserts".
Luke has already decided he'd like to be a deckhand and is thinking about the possibilities of working his way up to the bridge, maybe in another 10 years. On his leave he'll be going skiing and helping out on the family farm.
He says there isn't time for much apart from work, meals and sleep on the Atlantis. At the end of his shift, "If it's daylight I like to come out on deck. If we've got cellphone reception I'll give mum a call and see how they are down home.
"Then I go back, have a shower and away to bed. Wake up, same thing every day."
Factory manager Joe Crick, 45, from Stoke
Mr Crick left Westport in his mid-teens to be "a boy on a boat" and says, "I don't hide the fact that I pretty much couldn't read or write when I left school."
He took to the life, did all the required courses and now enjoys the paperwork side of his job.
In his office by 11am and on the factory floor by 12.30, he works there alongside everyone else until 11pm. Then he fills out his reports, discusses the day with the skipper on the bridge, goes back to the factory at about 1.45am to write up the day's production figures for the crew, "and that's my day".
His team can process a 20-tonne bag of fish in under six hours and he says the way to look at it is "the faster we get that fish from the back of the boat into the freezer hold, the bigger the hourly rate is".
But the emphasis is always on quality, because that affects the price and the crew's pay.
A factory manager for four years and a foreman for 12 years before that, he says the first trip can be overwhelming for newcomers.
"Today's generation . . . a lot of them do get quite shocked when they realise it's six-on, six-off, not six hours doing a bit, but six hours of straight, full-on work.
"It's a hard life but they're rewarded for it. You start on a lower wage and you work your way up - if you work hard it doesn't take long to get up the ladder."
Mr Crick has three young children and reckons he gets to spend more time with them than most shore-based fathers. He's a keen member of the Nelson Volunteer Coastguard.
He's grateful for the opportunities the company has provided for him to advance. He comes from a seagoing family and says if he hadn't gone fishing, he would probably have joined the merchant marine.
"If that hadn't gone ahead, I think I probably would have been a no-hoper on the streets."
Chief engineer and cook Dave and Raywin Sinclair, from Nelson.
The Sinclairs were crayfishing on the Wairarapa coast before moving to Nelson when their children reached high-school age.
Mr Sinclair had plenty of experience running his own coastal boat but had to study for the appropriate tickets to become a ship's engineer, and at 52 is in his second year as chief.
"There's a fair bit going on. It's not just the main engines, you've got all the refrigeration, the winches, the hydraulics . . . you never stop learning."
He says his job involves "constantly wandering around looking at shit. Preventative maintenance is the key to the whole deal".
He works a 12-hour day but is on call around the clock.
Mrs Sinclair loves being at sea as much as he does, he says.
"I don't think I could go back to a nine-to-five job. With this job you get that extended break and with both of us on board it's good. We've been around the world a couple of times."
The Atlantis is a good boat to work on because everyone gets on well: "Once you're at sea, a ship's a ship, and it's the crew that make the difference."
As one of the oldest on board he tries to offer sound advice to the younger crew members.
"It's pretty easy for them to go home with a big pocketful of cash and sit in the pub for the six weeks off. You try and tell them, ‘There's plenty of time to play, just stack a little bit away'."
Because of their clashing shifts and seniority, the couple have a single cabin each. "Work's work," Mr Sinclair says.
Mrs Sinclair - whose cooking is praised all over the ship - says her time at sea is mainly just working and sleeping, "because when you're at home, you can do what you like".
After 15 years at sea, she judges the Atlantis to be "a really good boat".
"A lot of us have served together for a long time, we've become a family."
She thinks couples working together at sea is a good thing. "It makes for a more settled boat."
It also helps them achieve their goals quickly. One couple she knows worked on a factory trawler for three years and ended up with their own home and a rental property. Another couple have "probably got five rentals by now".
"Everyone's got different reasons for why we come into the industry, but I think once they get past the first few trips where you work hard so you play hard, they learn to save, and they can get ahead very quickly."
Factory hand Hayley Hedges, 20, from Motueka
In January Ms Hedges, whose partner also works on the Atlantis, will have been at sea for two years. She finished year 13 at school before taking the opportunity to make some money while she decided on her future.
"Coming out here I was pretty scared, but after my first couple of trips it's just what you make it, I suppose."
Now she sees a career in the industry as her future.
"The best thing for me, coming from a family with not a lot of money, it's just opened heaps of opportunities. It was a real big eye-opener. All these things I always wished I could have done just became possible in such a short time."
It's about not only the money, but also learning about herself, "knowing I can do things if I put my mind to it".
She and her partner hope to buy a house in about a year's time.
She doesn't want to "sound sad" but says her life before going to sea was depressing.
"I was in a crappy relationship, I wasn't going anywhere, everything seemed impossible, nothing seemed achievable.
"I always think, ‘What would I be doing if I didn't come out here?' I'd like to think I'd have gone overseas or studied, but to be honest, I'd probably just still be sitting round Mot[ueka] doing a whole lot of nothing."
Already a factory veteran, she says it's funny to hear the new arrivals asking about when the ship will be going back to port. It reminds her of her early trips.
She tells them, "Don't worry about it, mate, just keep packing. We'll go home when we're full."
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