You have to give it to Donna Wells. Twenty years ago, with eight years fishing business experience under her belt, she set up as a small fry in the big player, male dominated seafood industry.
Today, her specialty is quota brokerage and being a seafood provider on behalf of independent fishing owners and operators from all around the country. Her hard work, tenacity and networking has all paid off, and today her Nelson-based company, Finestkind Ltd, is highly regarded in the industry, both here and across the Tasman. Seafood Industry Australia has only one kiwi member, and it’s her.
"In many ways I’m the original small kiwi business," Wells points out.
"But I must admit to a fair bit of pride and a sense of achievement that Finestkind products regularly make it onto the auction floor alongside other big Kiwi suppliers like Moana Pacific and New Zealand King Salmon. Finestkind is a top brand, which reflects in the prices returned to our suppliers."
Wells, here, is reffering to Sydney Fish Market, which she currently supplies about 60 tonnes of top grade fish to a year. Currently, she is sourcing from eight independent fishers up and down the country, her top three suppliers making up around 75 percent of her supply turnover.
Her job is always busiest just before the fish are shipped overseas. A registered exporter, it’s her job to arrange the transport, airfreight logistics and paperwork for every step along the way.
"Fishing compliance is mind bogglingly complicated", she says.
"The industry has its own language and lingo – QMS, MHRs, ACE transactions - and that’s before you even start exporting the fish. There’s a lot of mahi [work], skills and expertise in getting the fish into the polybin, through the supply chain and to the destination market in top condition for sale."
In many ways, Wells was made for her job. Of Ngāti Kahu descent, she was born in Onehunga and grew up in South Auckland, dad was a wharfie and her mum was home-based. It was at Otahuhu College that she was streamed into ‘Commercial’ subjects which have all served her in good stead. Bookkeeping, typing, office management – she naturally excelled at them all. Her first jobs after leaving school were clerical ones with the Post Office and Government Life Insurance. But when she turned 20, she took off for her OE in Australia and got a job as a housemaid on Hayman Island off Queensland.
This is where she met her future husband Ken Wells who was working at the same resort as a ‘beach inspector’ and skipper of the ‘loopy’ boat which took tourists out on their daily activities.
The two travelled within Australia before moving across the world and working in London pubs, ending up in Iceland with jobs in a big fish factory.
"That was real hard work," she recalls.
"It made me realise the value of giving up your freedom for a paycheck. I also learnt heaps about how fish got processed."
They made their way home, Wells following up with a four year stint as court reporter for the Commonwealth Reporting Service, based in Sydney. Ken meanwhile had come back to New Zealand to build his dream fishing boat, not that surprising considering he was from a family of commercial fishermen. His father Gordon Wells and uncle, Lionel Wells, were both well known around Port Nelson where they shared a boat, Majestic.
Ken would spend two years at the family base at Whakatahuri in Pelorus Sound, building his 11.9m-long Orca; a boat establishing him as a fisherman in his own right. His first job was fishing for albacore tuna off the West Coast, as well as his first and near-disastrous crossing of the Westport bar being filmed by a local.
The Wells married in 1991 and their only child Max came a year later. The reality of married life became jointly managing their fishing business which entailed catching tuna all the way up the west coast as far as north as Manukau, scalloping around the top of the south, and trawling Nelson, Tasman and Golden Bays along with the Marlborough Sounds.
Wells' organisational skills proved perfect for the family fishing business and, when she saw an article in Seafood Industry magazine about the Sydney Fish Market, she took her four year old son over with her to investigate.
"It was the start of the supply trade for me," she recalls.
"I could tell immediately there was an opportunity, but it had to be done right, and I felt like I could do it. It gave me the confidence to start up Finestkind in 1999. Other fishermen started to come on board when they saw that we were consistently getting higher prices for our product."
The strategy was simple, if meticulous; "Top quality fish, total compliance, and seamless export procedure".
The Wells separated around 2000, with her staying in Golden Bay for seven years and running her business from there, before moving back to Nelson in 2005 and setting up an office in Vickerman St which she operated out of for the next 13 years.
Wells describes Port Nelson as a dynamic place to work.
"You’re right in the middle of all the action, all the fishing companies are there, and the boats. It’s the heart of the industry and it’s the people you meet that keep you going. A fisherman once said to me that the industry is very character building. I couldn’t agree more."
Wells says her proudest work moments all involve meeting people and learning experiences, such as being invited to join an Australian seafood delegation to attend the Brussels Seafood Exhibition where she happened to turn 50 at – a double cause for celebration. Representing her company at the Bluff Oyster Festival, partnering up with Saint Clair Family Estate Winery at the Marlborough Food and Wine Festival for many years, and the Sydney Fish Market Seafood Excellence Awards - all encouraging points along the way.
Wells is of the firm opinion that the industry needs more women, because they are team players and have excellent organisational skills.
"Catching fish is one thing, it’s what you do with it afterwards that determines how successful things are. Pretty simple really."
Wells also reckons without a doubt the industry is going through some momentous changes.
"Electronic compliance has sure done away with the mountain of paper, that’s great. But there’s a huge attrition of the older, more experienced fishermen who are exiting the industry and that’s a huge loss of experience. I guess they just can’t be bothered with the new reporting regimes and cameras on boats, just not what they signed up for, not to mention the ongoing expense of it all.
"These changes have signalled a time to go and the loss of the knowledge to the industry is really sad and can’t be replaced. It’s like death by a thousand cuts, the largest attrition being in 2019. But there’s also a lot of innovation and modernisation happening, and it’s all helping to make a more compliant, efficient and sustainable industry which taps into market with excellent products and traceability. Look at the Tasman Seafood shop (now Harry’s Fish Shop) in Nelson, it lifted the game. That sort of innovation we need in every area and we are all ambassadors for our industry.”
From her experience brokering quota she is convinced, too, that the whole system of quota management (not talking about quota ownership) needs a good overhaul.
"Last year fishing companies collectively paid $2.5m back to Government in deemed value for their catch above their quota. It all needs rejigging based on ‘real’ estimates of fish stocks."
After 31 years, Wells is a proven performer through all seasons and a passionate supporter of our commercial fishing industry and its people. Finestkind is a recognised, respected and trusted operator. The world is a quickly changing environment and supplying fish is no different. Finestkind is up for the changes and the challenges which are presenting themselves.
"I've learnt a lot of things in my time in seafood and there's no time like now to implement and incorporate these into my business. There are opportunities everywhere. It’s about choosing the right ones."
"As one colleague put it, ‘You’ve earned your stripes’."
- Gerard Hindmarsh