Artisan Fishing in the Bay of Plenty
THREE O’CLOCK in the morning is a disturbing time to go to work, but for the three-man crew of the fishing vessel Coastal Rover in Tauranga, it’s standard operating procedure.
Captain Russell Harvey and his sons, Dan and Ryan, run the boat as a fishing family affair. They work the reefs and sand flats off the Bay of Plenty coast whenever the weather is halfway decent. But instead of trawl fishing, the Harveys employ more eco-friendly longline fishing. “And you catch betterquality fish this way,” says Russell.
On a typical day, they will bait, set and retrieve up to 2000 hooks, the whole procedure taking the best part of 12 hours.
First, the boat steams out at a steady six knots to their chosen fishing ground, about 20-25km offshore. As they head out, the crew bait and prepare the lines. Mostly they use pilchards, salted down for three days so moisture is removed and the flesh is tough enough to stay on the hook. The hooks are a recurve style with a metal prong above to dissuade small fish from being hooked accidentally. Baiting is time- consuming; sharp hooks and knives are wielded with care.
At their destination, the crew drop their tori ( bird-scaring) line first. Russell lobs a buoy that looks like a road cone with an orange soccer ball stuffed in its base. It’s attached to a long line of strong monofilament from which hang lengths of brightly coloured tape, to help scare seabirds away from baited hooks.
The Ministry for Primary Industries has made it obligatory to run a tori line while longline fishing, and is introducing a more stringent monitoring programme for commercial fishers. Digital monitoring – comprising geospatial position reporting (GPR), catch reporting via e-logbooks and onboard cameras – will provide better information about commercial fishing activity, enabling better monitoring of fishing catch, bycatch and incidental casualties, such as pilchard-pinching seabirds.
All trawl vessels of more than 28m now operate under the GPR and e-logbook requirements. This development is an extra cost to the fishers, but some have already bought into sustainable fishing models – and not just because it’s the right thing to do. Line fishing not only reduces the amount of bycatch – from dolphins to ancient coral – it also commands premium prices in the markets of Japan, Singapore, the US and Australia.
ON THE COASTAL ROVER, the line is ready to be hauled in. It’s been down for around three hours, dropped over a patch of sand in 60m of water to the northeast of Mōtītī Island.
There’s a sense of anticipation as the top marker buoy is retrieved; the line is then hooked onto a large reel and brought to the surface. It’s a smooth operation and all about taking care of the fish – avoiding stressing or bruising them as they come aboard, then dispatching them humanely.
I set my stopwatch to time the catch transition. The first fish is undersized, and is quickly unhooked and returned to the ocean unharmed. The second is a 40cm snapper in excellent condition.
First, Dan pauses the retrieval reel, deftly removes the trace from the line, and swings the fish and its attached trace inboard, where it lands on the processing table. Here’s where you discover how much these guys care about the quality of the fish they catch. The snapper lands on a piece of foam – a cushion to prevent bruising of the flesh.
Russell takes the trace in one hand; his second hand holds the fish firmly on the cushion. He removes the trace and hook, returning them to a trace frame for tidy safekeeping. Ryan, meanwhile, takes hold of the fish and with an iki spike – a tool like an icepick – carefully stabs the fish above and behind the gill, into the brain.
The snapper is then slipped into a tank containing salt ice slurry. The lower freezing point of the ice ensures a rapid chilldown time for the fish – essential for maintaining perfect flesh.
Time elapsed since the fish left the water: 22 seconds. The Harveys repeat this manoeuvre up to 1000 times a day.
TOP CHEFS scour the world for quality fish. Chef Daniel Chavez, owner of the Ola Cocina del Mar restaurant in Singapore, is visiting Tauranga solely to see where his fish comes from and how it’s caught.
Originally from Peru, Chavez has never been fishing, either with a humble rod or on a commercial vessel. I’m not sure what he’s expecting, heading out on the Coastal Rover in blokey New Zealand, but what he gets is pretty special; his delight as he catches his first fish on a rod and reel, a golden snapper, is palpable.
Dan Harvey is a bit of a chef himself. He prides himself on his raw fish salad and pan-fried snapper, normally wolfed down between slices of white bread and butter as a hot-fish sandwich to keep the boys going while they’re working.
Chavez has brought a bag of traditional Peruvian fixings to show the crew what he does with their fish in his restaurant. He has a passion for chilli, the basis of many dishes from his homeland. His ceviche ingredients include capsicums, lemons, red onion, fresh coriander, garlic, ginger, sugar, salt, Waiheke olive oil and a couple of sachets of a chilli preparation he bought at a specialty store in Auckland. The scene is set for a deckside cook-off.
The fishing complete, we steam back into Tauranga Harbour, pulling into a sheltered bay. As the anchor drops into pellucid blue-green water, a seal surfaces with a large octopus fixed in its jaws. The seal thrashes the cephalopod from side to side, tearing away bite-sized pieces, then gulping them down.
This is better than television. First, Chavez gets The Fishing Show, then Masterchef: The Fish Challenge and now it’s Blue Planet. For the Harveys, this is just another day; Chavez is on cloud nine.
While Russell and Ryan pack the catch into fish bins surrounded with salt ice, Dan selects a few nice-sized snapper, quickly fillets them and starts to prepare his dish. Chavez lovingly chops his raw ingredients and smiles as he looks at the perfectly chilled fillets set in front of him.
Chavez takes a bite of his Kiwi hot-fish sandwich. “What we’re looking for in a restaurant is flavour, which primarily comes from the raw ingredients,” he says. “There’s no magic behind it; if you use fish that’s been living in a clean environment like this, has been caught in a responsible, sustainable manner, then treated with care during the whole delivery chain – well, we’re off to a good start.”
In such a simple way, export relationships are born.
Above: An early start. Top right: Skipper Russell Harvey (right) and son Dan (centre) say eco-friendlier longline fishing also delivers top-quality fish. Below right: Chef Daniel Chavez with his rod-caught golden snapper.