As a younger diehard recreational angler, I used to view commercial fishers as the ‘bad guys’. But with age and experience comes some wisdom, and now I know nothing to do with our fisheries is that black and white – it depends on the species, the area, the methods of fishing, and obviously how stocks are managed by the government based on the science available.
Recreational fishers have a huge impact too, particularly in CRA 2 – the crayfish stock area that extends from Te Arai in the north, through the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty, to East Cape in the south. The area covers a substantial proportion of New Zealand’s recreational fishing population, including Auckland, Tauranga, and holiday hotspots such as the Coromandel. Commercial catch allowances in CRA 2 are on average half or less than that of other management areas around New Zealand.
The boat name Scout has persisted through generations of the Wilkie family.
I wanted to learn more, so I headed down the East Cape to catch up with an intergenerational commercial crayfishing family, the Wilkies. I pull into Greg Wilkie’s Te Kaha home on a frosty morning and am greeted like family by him and his wife Karen. Karen has a real twinkle in her eye, and it’s not long before a bit of banter starts flowing between us.
Greg has lived in Te Kaha and caught spiky critters in his backyard all his adult life. His father, Edward ‘Ted’ Wilkie, was also a career crayfisherman – in the deep south of New Zealand.
“The crays were so abundant down there back then that they thought the crays lived on the sand because the trawlers were catching so many.”
Ted didn’t even fish with typical craypots, just with 2x2m scoop nets. Greg showed me a few grainy old photos of the deck of Ted’s boat, the Scout, overflowing with crayfish. Back then they simply twisted the tails off and discarded the rest. The value of kiwi crayfish has come a long way since, both domestically and in the international markets.
Greg Wilkie at home in his office.
Greg and his brother started crayfishing in Te Kaha on his late dad’s “rotten old boat”, before building their own in the back shed. Fast-forward 50-odd years and Greg is still fishing the same waters, but now with his son Theo. Greg has seen it all; when the fisheries were “opened-up” by the Government in the 1970s, he said as many as 13 boats were working his local patch. This led to a decline in crayfish and many other stocks, culminating in the creation of the Quota Management System in the late 1980s. Greg has fished his small share of quota ever since.
This is typical of the CRA 2 fishery, where no quota owner owns more than 10% of the share. The fishing and associated businesses provide socio-economic benefits for smaller regional towns and communities along the coastline, like Te Kaha.
Local deckhand Charles Ngamoki working the deck, alongside Theo Wilkie.
“I even bought some more quota before the latest management review for serious bucks, and then a year later the commercial share was cut by half. That was tough,” he reflects.
Greg looks out the window towards a boat in the distance. “There’s Theo coming in from his early run now, let’s go down the beach and meet him.”
The latest iteration of the Scout is a Roger Hill-designed Powercat with twin Honda outboards. As we head out and start pulling pots, it’s like watching poetry in motion. Greg expertly works the throttles and logs the catch, while young deckhand Charles Ngamoki, who grew up just down the road, catches the ropes and hauls the pots. Theo, also on deck, gives Charles knowing nods to communicate which crustaceans are keepers or throw-backs.
I get chatting with Theo as I watch on. Theo is fully immersed in the family business and he’s a keen recreational angler too, chasing marlin in summer when he finds the time. We also talk about fisheries management.
“What many people don’t realise is that the CRA 2 commercial group voluntarily dropped our quota a few years back when we recognised catches were decreasing.”
The CRA 2 Rock Lobster Management Company Ltd (CRAMAC 2) is the representative commercial stakeholder group for this region. CRAMAC 2 has made significant investments in rock lobster research since its formation in 1995, including a comprehensive vessel logbook programme, tag and release projects, and sequences of intensive catch sampling to Ministry standards and specifications.
Greg chips in: “The last thing we want is for it to be managed so that numbers fall and then have to build back up.”
The lad ‘Ted’ Wilkie was a career crayfisherman on the original Scout.
I later read the Ministry’s 2018 CRA 2 management review paper, and see it records that Theo Wilkie supported a reduction in the total catch allowance – the paper notes that “although his livelihood would be impacted, he considered joint efforts are needed to rebuild this shared fishery.”
The boys tell me the fishing is a bit slow today, but the catch seems pretty good to me. Most hauls have a few keepers, and the few undersized bugs are in good nick when they’re returned to the sea. A few pots come up with more than a dozen flapping crays, and a few surprisingly large snapper even find themselves stuck in the gear.
“We don’t just export all our catch to China – we sell as many locally as possible through our own channels too,” Greg says.
As we near the end of their pot run, the lads regale me with tales of the big snapper they’ve seen over the years.
“Do you want to have a crack bro?” Theo asks. Silly question! We steam off to Spot X and I’m handed a trusty old Shimano Charter Special, rigged simply with a single hook and a hunk of leftover cray bait. “Chuck her in bro!”
The Wilkies were kind enough to let Nick wet a line and this was the result!
It doesn’t take long before my line starts hissing away and I set the hook. The fish powers off as Theo jumps on the helm and starts chasing the fish – gamefishing, snapper-style! I feel kelp rubbing on the line until suddenly it pulls free and I start to work the fish toward the boat. It’s swimming around like a king, but the slow-thumping tail beats expose it as a big snapper. Red flashes appear in the teal-blue water and Greg slips the moocher into the net. Holy hecka! I think to myself as I hoist the fish up for a quick photo and release.
“Not a bad office,” I say to Greg as we steam back in.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else mate.”
I hit the road home with a few spiky treats, some fresh Te Kaha kiwifruit courtesy of Karen, and a new notch on my (limited) 20-pounder belt, thanks to hardworking local legends who are in the game for the long haul – definitely not the ‘bad guys’ some people might think!
November 2022 - Nick Jones
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited
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