Zach Aitken is a Queensland-based fisher who was featured in the very first issue of our Seafood NZ magazine, 30 years ago, at the age of 13.
Aitken, 43, has been in the fishing industry all his life, literally from the day he was born.
“I was born in Tauranga and first day out of the hospital, dad picks me up, on his boat, and took us across the harbour back to the ‘mount’ (Mount Maunganui).
“Apparently, he used to just chuck me in the fish bin and I used to side around the deck, and then I started actually crewing for him when I was about seven on the cray boats on the weekends, in between school.”
Aitken was doing cray fish and bottom longline trips for hāpuku and bluenose on his father’s vessel, Sam Pietro. He recalls his first three-month trip in the South Pacific on Mata Whao Rua when he was 10, trolling for Albacore.
“That was one of the best trips I can remember, it was awesome,” he says.
“We ended up taking the fish straight from the South Pacific to Fiji and straight to the canneries up there.”
After that life-changing experience, school life wasn’t cutting it, so his parents pulled him out and put him on correspondence, where he completed the last four years of his studies on Atu, while long lining for tuna.
Unsurprisingly, Aitken became the youngest person to be awarded a tuna handling certificate in 1993, news that made it to the pages of the first Seafood NZ magazine.
“That was pretty fun,” Aitken says.
“Apparently, the instructor was saying, talking to the old man afterwards, that I was telling [teaching] him things.
“I knew more about some things, more than what he was teaching us.
“I think I knew that there wasn't really other young fellas doing what I was doing; it probably just made me more cocky, I suppose… I'm cutting tuna that was getting sent to Tokyo market selling for $100 kilo plus sometimes.
“I don't think anything like that is done anymore, with the tuna handling side of things. “
However, that was just the beginning of his unique career path. In 1994, when Aitken was 15, the family moved to Australia and ran emu farms in New South Wales, where he says they “had a three-and-a-half-thousand-acre farm out there (in the bush).
“We would just run around building fences and chasing emus for a few years.”
After that ended in 1997, he went back and forth between Australia and New Zealand; working on Triton snapper longlining in Aotearoa for a year; then back to Australia, longlining for tuna in Brisbane on Tiwi Pearl; before bottom lining for hāpuku and bluenose in New Zealand again, until 2001, when he was 22.
Aiken’s nomadic tendencies led him to do a stint in the UK, and his career trajectory illustrates clearly how the industry pulls together, both at home and overseas, to help each other out when it comes to seeking new opportunities.
“Through that time when I was bottom lining out of Tauranga, I met a guy, (now) a mate of mine, that was on one of the cray boats. We used to give them our bluenose heads for cray bait.
“He was from England and was involved in fishing over there with the crabbing. So, he gave me a whole heap of contacts for the big super crabbers and that over there.”
This spurred Aitken to head for England, where he spent two years fishing out of the North Sea in Scotland, catching lobsters on Edward Henry, followed by another 12 months working in the English Channel, catching crabs on smaller boats.
In 2004, Aitken went back to Queensland and ‘got stuck on land’ for about two years, doing landscaping
However, despite his land-based adventures, Aitken is always keen to return to the sea.
"It just always calls you back, don't it?
“When I finished the five years in the Southern Ocean, I was working my way up the ranks and staying on board, doing back-to-back trips. The first two years, I think I'd be at home for a couple of months for the whole two years. I just put time in.”
Even after he ‘hit the wall pretty hard’ from burnout and told himself he’d never go back to fishing, when he stepped off the boat, he still always knew he would return.
A range of things motivate him to continue to work at sea, most notably the excitement and pushing limits.
“When I was younger on the tuna boats, I was obviously a kid, but I was doing a job. I'd get up at four o'clock in the morning, do my schoolwork until midday, then I worked on deck until I was told to go to bed.
It was just about filling boats up. There's nothing better. You know, just get out there and catch as much as you can and come in with a boat full of fish.
“Of all the boys (that) have sort of stayed on (my father’s boat), the original few that were there were all good hands. So, when I went and started working for other people, that's what I expected to work with. That's why I wanted to go to all the hardest places and all the roughest places and all the things that was pushing limits. I wanted to work with guys that were good at what they did.
“I think it's that excitement, the challenge, of not really knowing where your next pay is going to come from but it's more satisfying when it all works out. It's a lot better than just knowing that you have to do a nine-to-five and it's going to be in the bank. “
Now, Aitken is an independent mud crabber, starting in 2016 and getting his own license the following year. He’s been running his own operation crabbing since and, for him, nothing compares to his lifestyle and the freedom he has.
Working in an office would be ‘boring as shit’, he laughs.
“Doing my own operation, no one tells me what to do. I'll just do it. If I want to work harder, work hard. If I don't, then I don't.
“I think if I was sitting in the office, even if I've got a job library or whatever, and then someone says, ‘go and do this’ and ‘go do that’, I don't think I could handle that. I'd lose my shit really quick.
“I don’t really enjoy anything else, so I will keep going with it as long as I can.
“I just try and make my operation better each season with how I do things and the right markets for my product.”
- Janan Jedrzejewski