Tough trade to ply: ‘guts’ what it takes to make a good fisher

Retired Karitane fisherman Barrie Barber chats to Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association...
Retired Karitane fisherman Barrie Barber chats to Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association executive officer Kate Hesson after Ms Hesson presented him with life membership of the association. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Growing up in the coastal East Otago settlement of Karitane, Barrie Barber quickly got hooked on fishing. He talks to business editor Sally Rae about his near lifetime involvement in the fishing industry, which was recently formally acknowledged.

Ask Barrie Barber what makes a good fisherman and the answer comes quickly — ‘‘guts’’.

Mr Barber (79), who spent 50 years fishing out of Karitane, was presented this week with his life membership plaque from the Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association in recognition of his services to the industry.

A stalwart of the CRA7 (Otago) fishery, he has been involved in many roles, including active fishing, owning quota and various other fishing-related business interests.

He also helped other fishers get their start and supported their growth as they became the current generation of CRA7.

These days, from the Karitane home he shares with wife Ann — with expansive views over both the sea on which he spent so much time and the harbour — he maintains a strong interest in industry happenings.

He was 9 years old when his family moved from Oturehua to Karitane. Both his parents later ended up as charge nurses at the Seacliff psychiatric hospital.

Mr Barber attended Karitane School and then Otago Boys’ High School, where the rector wrote his interests lay outside the classroom.

Asked what his career aspirations were at that stage, Mr Barber said to ‘‘just get away from school’’.

‘‘That about sums it up — I wasn’t very good at lessons.’’

Growing up in Karitane, he had been surrounded by fishing folk and, as a lad, had ‘‘lived on the river’’ and been fishing with fishermen. It was a busy port and even Seacliff had its own boat to provide fresh fish for its residents.

It could be a tough existence; some fishers could only afford to pay their bills once a year, or afford a gallon of fuel at a time. When they ran out of fuel, that was as far as they could go that day.

He ended up working for the Waikouaiti County Council before deciding to buy his own fishing boat. The boat — Dorice — cost £1000.

He borrowed £200 from his wife — which he admitted he had never paid back — and the same amount from both his brother and father, and told his father he was going to ‘‘learn this game’’, Mr Barber said.

While his father would plead with him not to go fishing when strong winds were blowing, he would be making money when other fishers were ‘‘lying in bed’’, Mr Barber recalled.

His boat was about No 23 fishing out of Karitane, but numbers dropped off very quickly due to bad settlement of crayfish.

In his first year fishing, he never owed ‘‘anybody a penny’’. At that stage, 15% of his catch had to be sold to the local market in Dunedin for shops, and the rest he was getting about 20c for, Mr Barber said.

With so many fishers in the area, it was territorial for the first couple of years. Asked where his favourite spots were, Mr Barber said ‘‘you weren’t allowed to go to them’’ — otherwise gear would be towed off. Newcomers were ripe to be picked on — ‘‘so I had to harden up’’, Mr Barber said.

And it was a career that demanded hard work — ‘‘you’ve got to be tough enough mentally-wise to do it because of the weather you’ve got to work in’’.

Working with the tides, he would sometimes head out at 3am and bunk down until daylight.

Some days were 16 hours, others would only be one or two if rough weather developed and, on the days he knew there were no fish to be caught, he did not head out.

Asked if he ever had any tricky moments, Mr Barber talked of ‘‘the sea’s common sense — that’s my opinion of it. Don’t take a risk; there’s no need to take a risk.’’

He recalled some of the ‘‘hidings’’ that gear got with rough seas, including 16 pots once left from 50.

He and fellow fisher Dave Cooper, one of his good mates, would be in the shed at 2am or 3am straightening out what were then wooden pots.

There had been good and bad years in the crayfish fishery; a trawlerman from Port Chalmers once told him of seeing crayfish ‘‘six to eight inches deep’’ on the beaches around Karitane, while he recalled seeing, when a run started, crayfish climbing on to the bridle of his pots and up the ropes.

Some fishers paid for their boats overnight; their decks so full of the delicacy that they were jumping back into the water.

But other years, including the early 1980s, it was bad, but he also had blue cod pots so there was a substitute for that income, Mr Barber said.

Crayfish was a seasonal fishery — he was only allowed to catch from July through to December — so he did the likes of blue cod and flounder, ‘‘anything that we could catch’’, outside that period.
Much had changed in the industry over the years, including boats which were ‘‘palaces’’ compared with double-ended Dorice.

He moved on to other, larger boats, including Lady Ann and Lady Bridget, named after his wife and daughter respectively.

There were also far fewer fishers, mostly due to the implementation of the quota management system.

There were previously no limits and he could catch as many as he liked, if they were there to be caught. In one of his better years, he caught 20 tonnes.

He was supportive of the QMS coming in as ‘‘something had to happen’’. It was working well and, by restricting the catch, it meant there were ‘‘some there for the next day’’, Mr Barber said.

However, now there were other threats to the coastal marine environment, such as effects from land-based activities. He reckoned it was also more stressful and complicated being a fisherman these days.

Mr Barber was one of five fishers who started their own company, Globe Fisheries, which he chaired for 15 years and which won an Air New Zealand award for exporting. He also represented Karitane at national industry level.

His last boat was bought by Damon Cooper, who fished with him for about 10 years. He had always had good staff and he was ‘‘quite proud’’ of Mr Cooper, who also operates Dunedin seafood business Harbour Fish with brother Aaron.

‘‘He’s tops, a good fisherman.’’

He had no regrets about choosing fishing as a career.

‘‘I was a good fisherman but I found it easy. They all say I was a good fisherman; it’s just what you make it, really.’’

One thing he was not good at was keeping records — ‘‘bloody hopeless’’, he quipped — so he had no idea what his catch had been. ‘‘I couldn’t tell you that,’’ he said dryly.

As for his favourite crayfish recipe, the secret was not to boil them any longer than 10 minutes, in salted water, before serving with lettuce salad and new potatoes.

‘‘It’ll go down pretty well.’’

These days, he did wonder about the lack of flounder on the local river. Growing up, it was nothing to spear 60 flounder — ‘‘now you’re lucky to see two’’.

He had been told by several people that resin from pine trees kept a lot of fish away from in shore, but he did not know if that was a fact.

Outside fishing, his passion was racing — he bred Wellington Cup winner Cluden Creek in partnership with the late Neil Purvis, and raced the horse with Mr Purvis and Ali Macdonald — and he was involved in both horse racing codes, and he also enjoyed hunting.

‘‘I’m pretty lucky — I’ve had a good life.’’

At its annual meeting earlier this year, the Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association acknowledged the outstanding contributions of three people to the CRA7 fishery, including Mr Barber.

Long-serving CRA7 executive member John Steffens — who was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the fishing industry in 2013 — was farewelled, having moved to Nelson earlier in the year.

He had been active in several fishing industry organisations over the years, including the New Zealand Fishing Industry Board; the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen, of which he was a past vice-president; and the CRA8 management committee, of which he was a past chairman.

He also established the Guardians of Fiordland. He remains a director of the Fiordland Lobster Company, but has stepped down from the CRA7 executive.

Fish scientist Bob Street was also presented with life membership. He spent 32 years as an inspector and seafood researcher with the Marine Department, then the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries before retiring in 1986.

He was involved in many fisheries, including paua, flatfish, rock lobster and oyster. He then established his own consultancy business focused on enhancing commercial and recreational stocks off the South Island coast.

The association said Mr Street had extensive knowledge gleaned from decades of fieldwork and data collection.

He has been the pre-eminent researcher across southern fisheries and hugely important to the maintenance of the puerulus settlement research programme and various shellfish reseeding projects.

His original rock lobster and paua research work was considered to have set the foundation for contemporary management of those stocks.

He had also been described as being ahead of his time in his general research into what was now referred to as ecosystem-based management by investigating and confirming the interrelationships between species and habitats.

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