Three Days On Board a Commercial Cray Boat

Three Days On Board a Commercial Cray Boat

Ethan Neville spent three days on a commercial vessel, getting an insight into the health of the Hauraki Gulf cray fishery, described by some as ‘ecologically extinct’.

I stuck out my hand on the Leigh Wharf, reaching across the short distance between dock and boat. “Ethan,” I said, “Nice to meet you. It’s Dan, right?” He looked bemused, but he smiled and took my hand. “Nice to meet you too, but I ain’t Dan – his boat’s a lot bigger than mine ha.” I turned to Josh Moffat, Dan’s deckhand who was waiting beside me, and found him politely laughing. He pointed to a boat 100-odd metres away. “Dan’s on his way in.”

Sure enough, his boat was a lot bigger, and I had started my long-awaited three-day trip onboard a commercial cray boat by introducing myself to the wrong skipper – it was to be the first of many ineptitudes for my humble media self. I hid my embarrassment and continued to make conversation with the skipper who wasn’t Dan. It rapidly became clear that COVID-19 had been a harsh period for everyone, and this solo skipper wasn’t in a position to take along help. Prices had dropped up to $50 per kg due to China putting a halt on export orders earlier in the year, and some operators were even forced to return their catch to sea.

Fortunately for both myself and Dan, he always has a deckie on board, and the politely laughing Josh, an experienced fisherman and skipper in training, had recovered from his collapsed lung in time for this trip. When Dan pulled up to the dock a few minutes later, the proper introductions were made, and we stepped aboard his 16m alloy boat, Crusader.

Veteran crayfisher Dan McRae with a nice Great Barrier bug, destined for live export.

Veteran crayfisher Dan McRae with a nice Great Barrier bug, destined for live export.

Why was a recreational fishing writer spending three days on a cray boat? (A question I also asked myself that afternoon while holding a camera, swallowing whatever it was that my sea-induced sickness was trying to get out.)

I had already interviewed Dan by phone for a previous NZFN article on the NZ Quota Management System, and it was then that I asked him about mainstream media’s mantra on the subject of crayfish stocks: “Crayfish are functionally extinct in the Hauraki Gulf.” His answer was inviting me on his boat to see for myself how many “extinct” crays he catches. Whether this was a serious offer or he was just trying to get me off the phone, I’m not sure, but I hassled him regardless, and here I was cruising at 15-odd knots across the Hauraki, heading to the first of the 326 pots we would pull over the next three days.

With the first stop two hours away, Dan made coffee (which he somehow drank gracefully while I tried to throw it in my mouth between swells), leant back on his captain’s chair and gave me some background on his time in the industry. His family’s involvement with commercial fishing for crays, it turns out, goes back to 1993 when his father purchased CRA2 (Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty) quota. He did this, according to Dan, “as a long-term investment, with an inheritance in mind for future generations of his kids and grandchildren.” After working on mussel barges as a teenager in the Coromandel, Dan leased CRA2 quota off his family, and 27 years and four boats later, he is still in the trade. He initially based himself in the Coromandel and focused his efforts south of the Hauraki Gulf, but after moving north in 2010, he expanded his reach to also include the Mokes, the two “Barriers” and, on occasion, the inner gulf. Funnily enough, his brother also took up the family trade, and currently runs a boat out of the Wairarapa. For the McRaes, fishing is truly a family affair.

They are also pretty good at it.

In 27 years, Dan has only struggled to catch his seasonal quota once, and that was the year he first moved up to Auckland and was fishing new territory. The 2020 season was looking no different, and I was about to see why. A buoy had appeared in front of us and Dan was slowing to an amble.

As we got within striking range, Josh let the grapple fly. It cut through the air and then the water, before being halted by a tug. It gripped its target, and Josh pulled the buoy to the boat, casually slipping the rope around the davit and winch in a silent rhythm. The motor grumbled into life; the pot started its ascent. A dark outline emerged, broke the surface and the hanging pot was manoeuvred onto the gunwale. It was steel-framed and nylon-meshed, fitted with a compartment to store bait. Inside was a lone red cray (officially a “stony rock lobster”).

With the pot virtually on his lap, Josh reached through the opening in the middle and gripped the cray, before handing it on to Dan who put it to the measure – every cray that’s kept goes through Dan. This one was comfortably legal and was placed through a hole in the deck which feeds into a holding pen. The boat hadn’t stopped moving this whole time, and as soon as the cray was dealt with, Dan repositioned the vessel while Josh rebaited the pot. Gurnard frames were the bait of choice, as well as the odd snapper frame, all picked up from Sanfords that morning. Within a few seconds, Dan gave Josh a nod, and the pot was thrust back down into the ocean where it would sit untouched for another couple of days.

Dan empties the day's catch into a holding pen.

Dan empties the day's catch into a holding pen.

I’d say it was about a three-minute process all up, and we’d do the exact same thing another 325 times before we arrived back in Leigh.

“Dan’s done this for 27 years?” was my first thought.

He must have seen my expression, because his response was apt.

“You just realised you’re stuck with us for three days didn’t ya?” he laughed.

“Na, of course not,” I laughed back, but the words weren’t true for a couple of hours yet.

Careful records

That evening, after a hard day’s work for Dan and Josh, and a somewhat trying day for me as I got my sea legs and tried to help out with baiting pots where I could, we nudged into a tranquil bay and settled in for the night. While Josh cleaned up, Dan took a minute to show me the results from the day on his recording device. One hundred and twenty-seven pots pulled, 333 crays caught, and 150 crays kept, which gives a CPUE (Catch Per Unit Effort) of 1.18. He had released more crays than he’d kept, and many of these were legal. Any borderline cray was thrown back, as well as quite a few “As” and “Bs” – crays at the lower end of the size-range which are less profitable at this time of year. When the Chinese wedding season rolls around in January, the smaller crays are in higher demand, and Dan will be more likely to release the bigger models.

Dan's boat Crusader at anchor for the night.

Dan's boat Crusader at anchor for the night.

If one point struck me this first day, it’s that Dan and Josh were fishing, in every sense of the word. Dan tracks the crays, acts on hunches, watches expectantly every time a pot is pulled, tries new areas, barely takes his eyes off the sounder and celebrates big catches no differently to a rec fisher. The skills required to successfully catch fish commercially were, for me at least, shockingly similar to those needed to catch fish recreationally. And like rec fishing, some are better at it than others. Dan gets frustrated by cray fishermen, both commercial and recreational, who complain their favourite spot they’ve fished for twenty years no longer holds crays. For Dan, fishing the same spot for twenty years is ludicrous. He is constantly changing where he fishes to distribute pressure across the whole coastline – the Mokohinaus he will not fish more than once every five weeks, for example. Crayfish also move. At different times of the year, they travel from rock to rock, and even spend time feeding over the sand, so expecting to find the same crays in the same spot all year round just doesn’t add up.

For Dan, “Environmental conditions have a larger impact on this species than most, and as a harvester you have to adapt to these conditions.”

Crayfishing tips

So, what conditions is he looking for?

First on his list: swell and tide.

“Swell stirs up silt and gives the crays cover,” he told me, “and tide creates a constant food source.”

However, he is always playing a balancing act. Too much tide will cause the buoys to be pulled under and become irretrievable; too much swell and you’ll be putting yourself in potentially dangerous situations to pull a pot.

Another key environmental factor is wind, Dan continues. In simple terms: southerlies are bad; easterlies good. Different locations, however, will fish better in different conditions, and that’s where 27 years on the water comes in handy.

Beside the conditions, location is also important, and when it comes to finding the right spot, nothing aids Dan more than ENL’s WASSP system. This software allows Dan to 3D map the seafloor in real time. No rock, weed or reef system escapes his notice, and these are exactly the types of structure he is looking for when dropping pots. As luck would have it, ENL have released a version of WASSP which can be fitted on rec boats. It might not have the grunt of Dan’s setup, but it will no doubt get the job done.

With an intimate knowledge of the crays, the terrain and his electronics, Dan doesn't miss often.

With such intimate knowledge of the crays, the terrain and his electronics, Dan doesn’t miss often.

In 2016-2017, he caught his quota by the middle of January. In 2017-2018, he caught the same quota by the middle of November. Keep in mind that the cray season typically begins in late August (this year it was the 27th), pauses briefly in December and then kicks off again in January (Dan doesn’t fish past January, but some fishermen will keep going into Feb and March if they haven’t caught their quota).

Extinction talk ‘ridiculous’

It’s at this point we should probably return to the mammoth in the attic: aren’t crayfish functionally extinct?

Dan is clear on this matter: “The reports I hear about crays being extinct in the Hauraki Gulf I find ridiculous, and I have the fine scale data to prove it.”

By fine scale data, he refers to the extensive records he keeps from every trip. Every time he pulls a pot, he records the size of each crayfish he keeps, as well as how many legal and undersized crays he returns. His CPUE is recorded every day, and all of this information is reported to MPI. On another piece of software, his catch records are overlaid on a map, so he always knows where and when crayfish are biting.

Where did this “functionally extinct” phrase come from? In the 2014 article, Rock lobster biology and ecology: contributions to understanding through the Leigh Marine Laboratory 1962–2012, the authors write this: “All four models indicate the key role played by rock lobsters in unfished coastal reef ecosystems where they are the dominant benthic predator. Three of the models indicate that, at present levels of fishing, this role has been greatly diminished. In these areas of low biomass, lobsters could be considered to be ecologically extinct.”

Since then, this phrase “ecologically extinct,” which can, and has been, interchanged with “functionally extinct” despite the different implications for lay readers, has been popularised in mainstream media, but without the nuance of the original article. This culminated in The Guardian using this phrase in a 2020 article on our fisheries.

In reality

I should note here that I am in no way suggesting our crayfish stocks are entirely healthy or at the same level as they once were. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from the first half the 20th Century suggesting Auckland locals waded out in the morning, picked crays up off the sand and cooked them for breakfast. More recently, clear evidence emerged of declining crayfish stocks. In 2016, industry recognised CRA2 stocks needed space to recover, and decided to voluntarily reduce their catch by 50 tonnes for two seasons. On this point, Dan openly confirms that one cause of this decline was fishing pressure. In 2018, MPI formalised a bigger reduction to the TACC (Total Allowable Commercial Catch), moving it from 200 tonnes to 80 tonnes. Most regarded this as a necessary move, albeit quite rushed.

The popular notion that crayfish are extinct in the Hauraki, however, is seemingly unfounded – whether they are “ecologically extinct” is a debate for another day.

For Dan, “the constant barrage of misinformation from certain sectors has been weighing heavily on myself and my family. We have been responsible fishers and operators on the ocean for a quarter of a century and we are treated like second rate citizens. I now know how the farmers feel, and frankly it wears you down physically and emotionally.”

On top of the negative social stigma, Dan regularly has his pots slashed by recreational divers. An in-depth discussion of the evidence and its political implications is, a topic for another article, but another unambiguous take-away from this trip is that these small, family-owned commercial operators are not the enemy – something LegaSea and most recreational fishers agree with – and they certainly don’t deserved to have their pots slashed.

Chasing packies

The next two days were bright and blue, and I even got my chance to pull a pot or two – but with me involved the whole process took about twice as long, which Dan quite rightly only put up with for 30 minutes. On day two, we fished the reds until mid-afternoon, and then got onto the packhorse crays, or ‘packies’. Ten pots were enough to get Dan all the packhorse he needed for the trip. We were back at Leigh by 11am on day three with 383 reds and 90 packies on board from our 326 pot lifts (145 different pots).

Ten pots were enough to get Dan all the packhorse he needed for the trip.

Ten pots were enough to get Dan all the packhorse he needed for the trip.

All in all, these are three days I’m not going to forget quickly. Beyond the amazement of seeing so many crays in such a short period, it left me with plenty to think about. One thing’s for sure: polarities don’t often survive nuance, and as with most issues, a fair bit of nuance is needed with how CRA2 is managed moving forward.

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

November 2020 - Ethan Neville
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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