Island Bay Wellington - Fishing History

Anna Macrae shares the fishing history of the Shetland Islands...

When I tell people I’m from the Shetland Islands, they generally smile, raise their eyebrows, and nod politely. I don’t blame them. I have pretended many times that I knew where that was. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that a community of Shetland Islanders, instrumental in the fishing DNA of Wellington, lived down the road from me!

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Tapu te Ranga, more commonly called Island Bay, is one of the gems of Wellington’s South Coast. The island itself is said to be the spot where Kupe sighted and pursued the giant octopus Te Wheke-a-Muturangi across the Cook Straight. It is also here where the wife of a local chief, Tamairangi, sought refuge in the early 1800s during a battle that forced Ngati Ira from Wellington Harbour to live on the island with her children until their freshwater supply ran out. It is a place with plenty of history and plenty of resources.

If you visited today, you would still see a handful of fishing boats bobbing around the small island in the middle of the bay. Although a marine reserve now, it was the perfect spot for gathering kaimoana, with an abundance of hapuku, crayfish, and blue cod within arm’s reach. The bay is deep and protected from the prevailing north-westerly, the island forms a breakwater and protects the bay from the merciless southerlies, and there is a reef that sits comfortably between the two.

As the only sheltered anchorage on the South Coast, it became Wellington’s first established Pakeha fishing station as early as the 1870s. Looking directly across Cook Strait, Tapu te Ranga welcomed loads of European settlers who were attracted to Island Bay in particular for ready access to the sea and to join the burgeoning fishing industries present here. These newcomers were mostly made up of Italian families but also included a small handful of families from the opposite side of the world – the Shetland Islands, a remote subarctic archipelago tucked away between mainland Scotland and Norway.

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Approximately 250 Shetland immigrants ended up in Wellington, many of whom came to work for shipping companies as captains and engineers, as merchant seamen, as watersiders or stevedores, or as fishermen in Island Bay. These Shetlanders were renowned for their maritime skills and were a valuable asset to the community. Although there were only a few (I literally mean a few – nine families, to be exact) who shifted out to Island Bay, these Shetland families had anything but a small impact on the fishing scene.

Arriving with inherent knowledge and experience that one can only get from living in a place where water surface temperatures drop below freezing point, the Shetlanders quickly became reputed for their seamanship at Tapu te Ranga. I don’t know if you’ve fished in Wellington before, but I can see how surviving the tough winters and hardy seas of the Shetland Islands came in handy for enduring the South Coast climates!

The Italian fishing community in Island Bay was already well known on the scene, but the Shetlanders brought with them the lived experience of fishing in the challenging conditions of the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. They are touted for teaching the Italian fishermen long-lining techniques that were more suitable for navigating the strong tides and rips of the rugged Cook Strait, in contrast to the serene waters of the Mediterranean. Shetlanders also introduced the use of hand-made canvas buoys on nets and pots, which were far better at withstanding tidal conditions than the drum barrels the Italians used at the time. And Shetland Fair Isle knitwear, along with Smookies (a type of homemade oilskin), became the preferential fishing getup for every man in Island Bay.

The Tait brothers, Jack and Peter, were one of the best-known fishing families in Wellington. As the earliest of the Shetlander families who came to Island Bay in 1913, Jack, in particular, developed such a good understanding of the tides and conditions of the Strait that he came to be known as ‘Mr Cook Strait’, famous also for his knack of discovering new fishing grounds.

The Shetlanders and Italians did much more than fish these waters together. They sold boats back and forth between each other, often retaining the original names, had dances and socials, formed rugby teams, and during the harsh depression years of the 1930s, were among those who established the Wellington Fishermen’s Cooperative Limited. This cooperative was central in stabilising the local market and gave members income security by purchasing, preparing and selling their catch to retailers via an outlet on Cuba Street.

Peter Glensor, current Secretary of the Shetland Society in Wellington and a descendant of a well-known fishing family from Island Bay, recalls how after his grandfather passed away, the Italian families they had fished with sent over delicacies – buckets of hapuku throats – to acknowledge his death. Bill Tait, whose father and uncle were the aforementioned Tait Brothers, also recalls how on the day of his own father’s funeral, not one single boat left Island Bay, a sign of the deep respect and relationship the Shetlanders and Italians had.

This century-long connection between Shetland Island and Italian fishing families still remains. Every year since 1933, when the launch Santina was lost without a trace after a howling southerly, a ‘Blessing of the Boats’ ceremony has been undertaken at the Island Bay Festival. Boats from all over Wellington line up to be anointed for safe passage and bountiful catches after they have made a trip around Tapu te Ranga Island. This year, in line with tradition, a Shetland Island Flag was raised by the Italian families who are still fishing the waters at Tapu te Ranga.

“It’s an acknowledgement of a shared history and heritage,” says Peter Glensor, “the Shetland and Italian connection will always remain strong”.

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I was surprised to find these puzzle pieces of the Shetland fishing community in Island Bay. I had known it to be a famously Italian corner of Wellington, but the closer you look, the trails everywhere are obvious. A street called Lerwick, named after the ‘capital’ of the Shetland Mainland, is one of the dominant streets in Island Bay. The spire of St Francis de Sales Church was built to resemble the prow of a ship, in acknowledgement of the history of Island Bay as a safe harbour for fishermen and their families. And along the main drag opposite the beach, there is a mural acknowledging 100 years of the Shetland Society in Wellington, a celebration of the magnanimous contribution of the Shetlanders to the Island Bay fishing community. This includes a portrait of Helen Clark, probably the most well-known Shetlander in New Zealand (I knew we called her Aunty Helen for a reason!).

Today, only Italian fishing families remain in Island Bay, but the legacy and memory of the Shetlanders remain strong. It is a place I often like to visit, not just to follow the Tapu te Ranga snorkel trail or rock hop with my daughter, not even just to fish or dive further around the rugged coast, but because it makes me feel connected to where I came from. I like to imagine that my own descendants felt somewhat at home here, amongst the icy-cold southerlies and abundance of fish, and that makes me feel a little more at home here too.

June 2023 - Anna Macrae
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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