The Guard Safety motto is “we get shit done”, says managing director Darren Guard.

And there is plenty to do, with the Nelson-based company expanding its service into fishing industry wellbeing and education programmes and liaison on the cameras on vessels rollout.

Its mission to keep fishers safe at sea and help the industry navigate myriad rules and regulations was launched under the MarineSAFE banner, in partnership with the NZ Federation of Commercial Fishermen and a $250,000 grant from the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC).

The FirstMate NZ programme Guard Safety are heavily involved in has expanded essential industry advice and support, focusing on the health and wellbeing of people across the commercial fishing sector.

Guard Safety was asked to provide wellbeing services within the industry in 2019, with support from the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Its need and worth were soon realised and it attracted substantial government support in the form of $4.7m from the Covid fund.

FirstMate NZ is now a registered trust with its own trustees who have appointed Guard Safety to deliver the frontline services.

Guard says no one in the sector wanted to talk about mental health in 2019 but there is more openness now about high rates of depression and suicide.

“The rate in the fishing industry in Australia is double the national average,” he says.  “New Zealand will be the same.

“We are a vulnerable sector when it comes to mental health. That’s why FirstMate NZ is important. It’s a service our industry should have had years ago.”

The programme recognises working at sea is a tough environment – mentally, physically, legally, and financially.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and Maritime NZ are supportive of both FirstMate and MarineSAFE, and Guard has also presented to the Maritime Transport Association conference, the Federation’s equivalent in the non-fishing sector.

But while he is doing the hui, he would prefer to see more buy-in from the industry and a little more dui.

“Industry needs to jump aboard with FirstMate and MarineSAFE and accept the whole seafood supply chain would benefit from business and personal support at some time.

“Industry is dealing with unprecedented times with Covid and now fuel prices. All of the negatives are colliding but we have to look beyond fuel prices and all the policy changes to the future fisher and aquaculture workers who are going to need these support services and resources.” 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is being blamed for the crippling increases in fuel prices but it has been noted it is not Putin who reaps the fuel taxes.

Three new training modules funded by FirstMate and created by Guard Safety have been added to the free MarineSAFE and FirstMate training resources, covering conflict and anger management at sea, leadership, and drugs and alcohol.

The leadership at sea module stresses an empathetic family-style approach is more effective than a Gordon Ramsay-type rant. Abusing crew creates fight or flight.

The professionally produced video opens with a sailing vessel, when ships were made of wood and men were made of iron. Times have changed but working at sea remains one of the most challenging jobs.

Its message is crew who feel valued and listened to are far more likely to return for the next trip.

Guard says he can appreciate now that he was a less than perfect skipper himself, a tough boss who was guilty of making it hard for crew. He is surprised they are invariably friendly and welcoming whenever he runs into any of them. We grew up the old way which with hindsight may not have been right method to get the best out of crew.

He says his father Phil could be similarly grumpy and suspects I know that.

Indeed, I do, having crewed for Phil aboard Destiny G in the scallop fishery in Tasman and Golden bays in the early 1970s. The Guard-built vessel was small, just 32 foot (9.7m) with a top speed of about 8 knots but it was a good sea boat that had even ventured to the Chathams in the cray boom.

My task as the deckie was to swing the dredges aboard, shake the contents out on to a sorting table, heave the dredges over again and sort the scallops from the pile of kina, mussels, rocks, seaweed, sand, and the frequent lashing stingray tails and occasional electric skates that lay before me.  As the day progressed the pile would grow higher, unable to be cleared before the next load swung aboard.

It was like the scene from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse tries to empty flooding water with a bucket but the faster he goes, the deeper it gets.

Phil would become exasperated by the incompetence of his deckie, who slowed as he got tired, and would start giving out.

My method of dealing with stress was to “accidentally” lodge the deck hose in Phil’s gumboot to cool him down. “Oh you bastard,” he would scream, “you’ve done it again”. “Sorry Phil,” I would apologise, struggling not to snigger.

A tacit truce would be declared on the trip back to port and we would start afresh the next day.

Guard says a lot of operators do not have the pragmatic tips and tricks on how to defuse a situation.

“The key is to treat someone with a bit of respect while still getting the job done and keeping safe.

“In creating the FirstMate and MarineSAFE resources we’ve involved current and ex-fishermen so they’re actually talking, we’ve involved Maritime NZ and also got a registered psychotherapist and an adult learning specialist, so we’re coming at it from multiple viewpoints. It’s not just us putting stuff together.”

It helps that business manager Shalaine Jackson has a master’s in psychology and “also gets shit done”.

The resources are relevant, realistic and practical, Guard says.

“The industry doesn’t need ‘fluffy’ and I think that’s why our resources are capturing people’s imagination.”

He says the drugs and alcohol issue could be addressed quite easily by enforcing zero drug tolerance alongside robust drug testing.

“But we’d have no crew. The industry is facing two current crises – a fuel crisis, which is tying vessels up around the world, not just in New Zealand, and we already have a crewing crisis. The reality is if you’re too hard and fast on drug testing you’ll have a crewing crisis.

“It’s a ridiculous situation to be in but it’s a fact and there are many cases where companies have drug tested and realised a vessel couldn’t sail.

“It’s a societal issue, not just an industry issue. It is safety first, but you’ve got to treat it with respect and compassion for those who have had issues with drugs and alcohol. This new drug and alcohol module is very empathetic but it’s also very pragmatic.”

Guard Safety has also been involved in reviewing footage from camera trials in the SNA1 fishery in the Hauraki Gulf since 2016, where captures of endangered black petrels have been a concern, and latterly with the tarakihi rebuild on the east coast of the North Island.

“As part of the ongoing camera roll out one of the other things we’re doing is a camera induction programme,” Guard says.

“It will be hosted on the MarineSAFE platform and will be available to anyone in the industry, whether they have a camera on or not. It will be a reminder on some key operational requirements for the Fisheries Act, health and safety, MOSS (Maritime Operator Safety System) and marine mammals. A reminder on things to talk to your crew about in preparing for increased transparency.”

He says when the camera contract came up, Guard Safety was approached by three different entities asking to collaborate if they were successful in getting the contract, ultimately awarded to Spark.

“We thought long and hard about it because of the sensitivities,” Guard says.

“We made it very clear to all parties we would only be involved if it was a fisher-centric approach and the personal wellbeing of those getting cameras was taken as a big factor.

“We were engaged by Spark and we will be working to give them information about the industry but also work with the fishers to try and ease the process.

“I know what cameras can and can’t do and I think the knowledge we have from the last six years putting cameras on boats will be incredibly valuable.

“It’s the simple things. You don’t want anyone penalised because the new crew doesn’t know the minimum size or the discard requirements for gurnard.”

He says fishers will go through an adjustment period but as found with the SNA 1 camera project in 2016, the widespread objections will go within a short period as people adjust.

“They just forgot about them. It’s all about the field of view, right? A camera can’t look in the toilet, it doesn’t look at the wheelhouse, it doesn’t look at the accommodation. What it does do is identify when people are moving on deck and it starts to record to verify your reporting and protected species interactions. But remember, they are also there to help verify you are doing things well, as most of us are.

“There’s pros and cons with cameras without a doubt, but we all accept the world’s changing. The world wants to see what’s happening on board our vessels. We can’t deny that. The customer wants to know the fish and that’s important. It might mean some fishers have to change a few things.

“One hint for every vessel getting a camera is to think about your MOSS requirement, so if it says you should wear lifejackets when you are hauling, and you don’t, the camera will pick up on that. Maritime New Zealand is a government department and it could have access to this footage at some time possibly to help with investigations or audits.

“If you’re required to set a tori line, then set it. If you don’t, then why the eff not?  So just do what you say you do and cameras become invisible in no time.”

He says the camera focus is understandably on the current rollout but there needs to be consideration of the opportunities that might be created in five or 10 years for industry.

“You imagine a customer overseas being able to log into your camera and see your catch and select it from their home. There are so many things that could be done.

“We need to use innovation and foresight with this process and improve ourselves rather than have it forced upon us.

“The biggest shame of the camera rollout currently is the footage will not necessarily be available to industry for continuous improvement. It should be available for marketing, and so that our kids can take it to show-and-tell at school to show proudly what mum or dad does at work.

“It is a missed opportunity and it is a drum I will continue to beat because I’ve seen the improvements and innovation across vessels that have had cameras in previous projects.

“I hope early footage will be reviewed with a fisher-centric approach so that fishers get informed feedback, opportunity to iron out any kinks, all aimed at helping get over the increased transparency phase.”

Guard draws heavily on his own experience as a skipper, initially on Destiny G. That was a starter vessel, like being given the keys to the family’s old Morris before being trusted with the sedan. He inherited the role when father Phil took on Gleam, (see accompanying story) previously run by his two older brothers Chris and John.

But his scariest moment came aboard another Guard-built vessel, Kathleen G, when it was nearly pulled under in a stormy Cook Strait by a huge bag of hoki.  After that narrow escape, he started paying attention to safety, which resulted in the creation of Guard Safety.

MarineSAFE also has a new watch keeping training module funded by Lyttelton-based Pegasus Fishing. That is under an agreement with Maritime NZ following a watch keeping failure that led to a collision between its vessel Leila Jo and a bulk carrier in January 2020.

Guard, 51, left life at sea fishing in about 2010 when his family sold their interests and did stints with Sealord and Maritime NZ before establishing his safety company.

He says he is the last Guard in the fishing industry, ending a legacy that stretches back nearly 200 years to Tory Channel whaler Jackie Guard.

“That weighs heavily. I want to leave something for the benefit of the industry.

“MarineSAFE draws on my family’s and my own experiences and knowledge and we hope it services our future seafarers for many years to come.

“I’ve been at sea, I’ve worked for the regulator, understand health and safety legislation. I’m fortunate to be able to pin something together that meets everyone’s requirements for the benefit of the industry, so please join the voyage at find out what can do for you or your whānau.”

- Tim Pankhurst