Justin Hough is from a long line of fishermen but his decision to live the dream of potting in the Marlborough Sounds has not been without its challenges. After months attempting to get operational, Hough is now catching fish bound for the Sydney Fish Market. It’s been a journey of learning and discovery.

The mist is still floating above the water as Lady HR steams into Havelock marina at the top of the South Island.

It has been a three-hour, pre-dawn journey for Justin and Rebecca (Bec) Hough who have brought Scooter the chihuahua and Kina the Sydney silky-foxy cross for the ride. Hough says it is a rare treat for the dogs as Kina is too fond of swimming.

“He jumps off for seabirds, for other boats, for dolphins.” He shakes his head.

“The number of times we have realised he is not on board, and we have had to go back and find him.”

The Hough’s home, Pokokini, is deep in Pelorus Sound, at Southeast Bay.

“The house dates back to the 1860s and we are told it is the second oldest homestead in the Sounds,” says Justin.

“It was originally a farm and more recently was bought by people wanting to start a commune. That fell over and we managed to buy it with the help of our parents. We spent a year in tents while we made it marginally habitable.”

Hough was working at King Salmon at the time but took a year off to work on the house.

Camping out was not the end of the challenges faced by living so remotely. Because his two daughters didn’t want to go to boarding school, he ferried them from Southeast Bay to Havelock every morning so they could then bus to Marlborough Girls’ College.

“We did that for four years. Every day, through rain, fog, and wind. We only had a little boat because we were broke, and it used to overheat,” says Hough.

It was a journey that started at dawn and surprisingly didn’t result in a lifetime hatred of boats for the younger Houghs. Both young women now work in the marine industry.

Justin Hough is a Chatham Island boy; and still deeply attached to the people and place, but he has no regrets about making his home at the top of the South Island, where he fishes the deep, clear waters for cod and gurnard and snapper – and flounder, the big fat yellow bellies, when he can get them – which all go into the Sydney Fish Market through Donna Wells at Nelson’s Finestkind.

Hough’s journey, from an idea to realisation, has not been smooth. His frustration at the tangled bureaucracy deemed necessary for getting operational is still bugging him.

“It was six months from the time I purchased the vessel until I was able to fish,” he says of the hoops Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) requires in order to operate.

Hough admits paperwork is not his forte but, even so, the duplication of documentation and proof of ability is perplexing and that six months he battled the system was six months he couldn’t fish.

Bec Hough grimaces in agreement and heads off to take the dogs for a walk – it is a story she has no desire to relive.

Hough is from a fishing family, with a long history of catching cod in pots.

“My father was a fisherman on the Chathams, a pāua diver mostly, but he codded. My grandfather was a codder, and my great-grandfather codded back on the island.

“I stopped going back to the Chathams because I get so homesick when I leave.”

A personal tragedy took Hough back there one last time, and he returned knowing that life was too short not to pursue his own dreams.

Hough was helping his cousin Pita Thomas of Waitangi Seafoods look for a vessel for an aquaculture venture when he saw another friend’s vessel appear on TradeMe.

A short time later, Hough owned not only Lady HR but the whole kit and caboodle.

“We got a truck, a second vessel, walk-in freezers and, most valuable of all, the connection with Donna [Wells] at Finestkind.”

The couple now had a going concern and Hough resigned from King Salmon to pursue his own fishing business.

Hough rolls his eyes ruefully. “We thought we would be fishing in a month.”

The optimism was misplaced.

“I had started the transition of my ticket to Skipper Restricted Limits (SRL) while I was still at King Salmon. My boss at King Salmon sent the email to MNZ about my sea time five times before they accepted it. 

“On the second to last time, they said my sea time did not add up and I didn’t have enough hours. They had simply added it up wrong.”

Then there was the process around the requirement to be a ‘fit and proper person’.

“The fit and proper person form needs to go with everything you apply for. So, you are repeatedly filling out this form, which goes off to the New Zealand police. You fill out one for the SRL, one for the Marine Transport Operating certificate (MTOP) for the vessel, and then I had to do one for the Four Winds, which is my small alloy runabout. Granted, if the applications come in quick succession they may refer back to the previous form, but it is a real bugbear of mine. I really am not planning on committing a crime between applications.”

Hough is quick to point out that he was warned by MNZ that the fit and proper process was taking three months to complete by the police but, as it is required for all other applications, there are vessels sitting on the hard for months waiting for sign off on information that had been supplied multiple times.

“I don’t have a criminal history, I haven’t even had a speeding ticket, so you would think it could just be done online,” he points out.

Hough is keen to praise most of the people he has dealt with at MNZ, saying even they realise some of the systems are overly complex.

Not all the delays were the responsibility of MNZ. Bad luck and bad information had to be added into the mix.

Hough received an email saying the MTOP application, which was sent courier mail, was lost.

Turns out, the email was a scam, but that wasn’t picked up by NZ Post initially and they launched a full-scale investigation.

“Unfortunately, when MNZ finally looked at my application they started, rightfully, to pull it to bits. I had done a twink job on the previous owner’s MTOP which, in my defence, MNZ said would be okay, but turned out it was way out of date, so we had to start from scratch.”

He says, in retrospect, doing the MTOP from the very beginning was the best thing he ever did.

“It was a marathon effort, but it was worth it.”

Six months after purchasing Lady HR, Hough finally had the paperwork to go fishing.

He says the fishing is tough in the Sounds, but Bec gives some perspective.

“When you’ve been fishing in the Chathams, anywhere else will seem tough,” she says.

Hough is currently potting for cod and doing a bit of lining.

“I am probably at about half where I want to be on volume but as my local knowledge increases, so will the catch.”

Hough says he really tries to look after the fish.

“One of the things Donna told me at the start was she was all about quality, not quantity. I used to hand-catch and iki my cod in the Chathams and got a massive premium, so I understood the importance of quality.

“Pots and hooks are the future. If I am only getting 50 percent of the volume I want to catch I will still be getting 75 percent of value from that because of the way I handle the fish.”

A few weeks ago, his first load of pot-caught snapper went to Sydney Fish Market.

“I’ve finally cracked it.”

He is also tinkering with the design of his pots.

“It’s hard to make small pots catch, but where I want to fish with the wee boat, the pots need to be small. So, I have a prototype on the go which is still catching cod, which is perfect, but I am being stymied in my new design because the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) are not keen on me changing the rigid mesh. I want it to be flexible on the base because currently it’s too hard on the fish,” he says.

Hough aims to catch between 150-300 kilograms of fish each time.

“People have trouble believing me, but I can cover the costs of the vessel with 150 kilograms as long as I look after the fish.”

Today’s catch is snapper, cod and red mullet, all pot caught but Hough wants to land other species.

“There is only so much cod ACE. If I can land other fish, particularly non-quota species like the red mullet I can increase my return.”

Whilst Hough is happy with potting, he has chased a bit of butterfish, but Lady HR struggled towing the tender he inherited for the purpose.

“Every time I took that thing out, I had to cross what they call the ‘mad mile’, and it was a nightmare.”

Hough bought a new tender and is also building new butterfish nets to reduce bycatch.

He says anything Finestkind don’t take, he wants to sell off the back of the boat and has permission from Port Marlborough to do so.

“They were really supportive. There are rules around it of course but every time I pull in here to land, someone will approach me wanting to buy fish.

“Our export fish is cranking. Donna is doing a great job and that will always be our mainstay, but if I can avoid putting fish back in the sea that won’t sell in Sydney and sell it to a local, it’s a win-win.”

Hough also intends to up his flounder game so he can still fish when the weather is bad further out.

“The first time I targeted them, I went out there with 1000 metres of new flounder net, didn’t realise it was stingray season, and came back with only 600 metres intact. They just destroyed them.”

Hough, who admits he has a soft spot for stingrays, did his best to release the stingrays from the net unharmed.

“So, there am I cutting brand new nets to save them and the last stingray on the boat that day put its barb through my hand.”

There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Hough will truck his catch through to Nelson before dawn the next day, where it will be graded and packed before starting its journey to the Sydney Fish Market.

It takes a brave person to begin fishing in the current environment, but Hough is a determined man.

Determined to challenge the old ways and innovate his way to greater sustainability and ever better product.