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Doors kept on opening for fishing late starter

Saturday 21 February 2015

At 27 Roger Connolly was a late starter in the fishing game when he went to sea on a squid jigger for Sealord in Nelson.

"I was the New Zealand representative. I'd sit there all night and wind a squid jigging bobbin; all the others were automatic then I'd do the radio "sched" at 0600. I'd never been to sea before and my first trip lasted a month which seemed like an eternity. Those boats were pretty basic; water was very limited and so there were no showers. It was a bit of baptism of fire."

Finishing the summer season Roger found work on the Whitby with his brothers, Michael, the skipper, and Peter, the deckhand.

"We fished mainly the east coast of the South Island along 'The Needles', Kaikoura, for pretty much anything that swam but mostly we caught bags of rubbish; squid, barracuda and warehou. No-one really knew anything about the hoki in Cook Strait back then or, that, just outside, was all this orange roughy. If you went home with hoki they'd complain and throw it in the fishmeal plant!"

Roger recalled the first trip the Whitby did down the West Coast.

"We'd hook up with the 400m contour round the end of 'The Spit' until you'd see some other boats and chuck the gear in. It was winter and the fishing was amazing; 20, 30, 40 tonne bags of hoki. We had bottom trawls so we'd only fish during the day because it [the fish] would lift off at night so we'd lay-up and drift.

"There was no such thing as GPS back then. As soon as we were out of radar range we had no idea where we were. It took one shot to tow back in the morning to where you were yesterday before you got anything."

Roger crewed on the Whitby for another two years before big brother Michael bought the long liner Shirley G.

"We did a bit of long lining for sharks and stuff, then a season blue-finning and we did really well; we caught 18 tonnes. At the end of that '81 season the boat caught fire and sunk.

"It was Dave and Marty Lucas that picked us up."

Out of a job Roger took the opportunity to sit the Coastal Master's ticket and then promptly gave up fishing.

He moved to Matamata, the Connollys mixed sharemilking and voluntary work with the area's disenfranchised youth. However three years of milking cows and the novelty had worn off so, with their two young children, they moved back to Nelson. As it happened, his brother Michael was skipper of the Arrow so Roger called on a favour.

"I was now 35 years old and a trainee deckhand! My coastal ticket wasn't much use because we were into the deep water by then but it gave me a real advantage because I only needed a year's sea time for my Deep Sea Mate's [ticket]."

It was the decade of discovery and development in the deepwater; those big days of orange roughy and dory on "The Rise", the "Challenger" and the "Westpac Bank". Roger described it as a fantastic period of his life.

"It was nothing to work 40 hours straight. The skipper in his mercy would give us a break but you only ever got about five hours to have something to eat, a shower and grab a bit of sleep and before you knew it up comes another 30 tonnes."

Roger worked his way up, becoming bosun, then mate/relief skipper and eventually the Arrow was his.

"In 8½ years I went from trainee deckhand to skipper. I got my Deep Sea Mate's and Skipper's tickets during that time and there was a period of time when I was also the cook so I did every job on her except being an engineer. The Arrow was an amazing training ship; a lot of fishermen and engineers today cut their teeth on that boat but those guys, well we're all getting towards the end of it now."

In 1994 Roger joined the Thomas Harrison alternating with Jim Candy but still with just one crew. They did massive hours "full on" chasing hoki in Cook Strait from the end of April through to September.

Believing the spawn to be over, Candy took the Thomas Harrison to The Rise but the fishing was poor so they returned to the Strait where they found there was still heaps of fish there.

"It's all history now but for the next for three years that boat caught 11, 12, 13,000 tonnes of hoki and the majority of it came out of Cook Strait."

The hoki fishery was expanding; the Thomas Harrison was opening up lucrative new grounds on the East Coast; the canyons of the "Clarence", "Conway" and the "Pegasus", the banks off Kaikoura and Campbell and "around the corner" off "Kau Kau" and the West Coast of the North Island.

"In some ways it was like the roughy; we broke in a lot of ground on the inside which still produces today only not as good, of course."

In 1995 Roger went to Newfoundland to look at the Newfoundland Breeze and Newfoundland Breaker, two fresh fish vessels laid up in Marystown.

"It wasn't a great place to be. The cod fishery was collapsing. Factories were closing their gates, big fish meal plants just shutting down and boats were being tied up. Of course we turn up and it didn't make you feel good at all buying their boats because you knew they were going to be out of work."

The vessels were renamed Otakau and Taimania and Roger ran the Taimania briefly until another opportunity presented itself. Harbour Inn Seafoods in Wellington owned two 35-metre factory trawlers with somewhat chequered histories. The challenge was too good pass up and so, to most people's surprise, Roger left Sealord.

"It was 1996 and I'd just got my 10 years certificate. It was a bit of a mission though getting the San Giovanni sorted but I learnt a lot because unlike a big company where you had total support from shore side, here I was skipper, ship's husband and super." [Ship's husband and ship superintendent are management shore-based roles looking after engineering, contractors, repairs and maintenance, crewing, provisioning].

Roger fished the boat successfully for the next two years until a phone call from the receivers of Harbour Inn Seafoods bought his world crashing down around his feet.

"I thought we'd done a good job; to the best of my knowledge no-one had filled them consistently like we had."

But as one door closes, another opens. Glomar Fisheries of Walvis Bay on the west coast of Namibia bought the San Giovanni and, with a 3000 tonne allocation in a developing fishery, they were looking for an experienced roughy fisherman.

"I got a phone call from this Frenchman offering me a job. But Namibia? I'd never heard of it!"

Roger's family followed him and with offsider, Rex Chapman. The two skippers were bringing the boat home full.

"We didn't have a clue where to go at first; and of course turning up with a new boat pretty much no-one wanted to talk to us; no-one would tell us anything. We had an old survey report and that's all. But the writing was on the wall despite Kiwi scientists telling them what a great fishery they had because the following year they cut the quota by half!"

An unexpected challenge was the physical state of the crew.

"About half the crew was HIV positive. They went downhill like a bloody avalanche once they got it to a point where they simply couldn't work. It was pretty horrific really although amazingly enough one 15-year-old we took off the street never got it. He was pretty good at engineering and so we pushed him in that direction, helping with his education as best we could.

"Jason's still alive, married with two children and working on a big Spanish trawler."

The Connollys treated their Namibian crews as they would anyone else, doing as much as they could for those dying in hospital.

"I recall we were fishing near the Angolan border when the phone rang; a crew member's three-year-old daughter had died that morning so I said I'd bring him home. No, no, you don't bring him home; its 300 miles! We'll keep her in the freezer until you get back. You've gotta be kidding! I remember thinking what planet are we on here? I'll see you in Walvis Bay. I gave him the company ute for the hearse which didn't go down at all well but, for them, it was a huge thing."

Roger's wife, Eugenie, had this to say: "They tell you when you first go to Namibia you cry because you wonder what the hell have you got yourself into and you cry when you leave because you've come to love it so much. And that's true; it gets into your soul!"

The Connollys came home in 1999 where, fortuitously, Sealord were looking for a skipper for the Thomas Harrison.

"I'd hoped there was a chance of getting back on her and there I was, Johnny on the spot."

Roger and the Thomas Harrison have been together for the past 15 years, fishing hoki and orange roughy until he announced his retirement in 2013.

"We want to become more involved with Marine Reach and the hospital ships."

Marine Reach is a church based hospital ship operation. They have two vessels which travel around the Pacific islands with doctors, dentists, opticians and other medical staff offering free aid. Like the medical people Roger and Eugenie give their time freely and have been doing three months of this work each year.

They are moving to Tauranga to oversee the refit of one of the ships.

"We'll take her to the Pacific for six months over the winter while the weather's good."

Asked about the highs and the lows of his career Roger recalls roller coaster times.

"I saw the start and the boom of the hoki and orange roughy fisheries and I've seen the slippery slide. I don't believe we'll ever see fisheries like that again; not in this economic zone, probably not in the world so I'm really excited to see how the Challenger Plateau has come back in what is a relatively short time. Not to get too carried away though; we knocked it over pretty quickly when it started so let's take a lesson from that."

Roger has been called a pessimist, perhaps overly critical. I see him as refreshingly realistic, often questioning the science behind the management of our fisheries.

He recalls the time when he took two Canadians out to Cook Strait.

"They shook their heads and said 'you guys are nuts; you know what you're doing here? You're pulling the plug and eventually there'll be no water left in the sink'. I've spent my life fishing spawn fisheries; that's my job and you can't take the boat home empty but sometimes I'd think 'what the hell am I doing'?

"If I have any regrets it is that I leave this fishery disappointed that I still have to watch foreign boats fishing in our waters. I'm disappointed that, given so much quota, Maori haven't taken up the challenge and got their people into fishing, instead they use foreigners. I've never agreed with joint ventures and I'd have thought we'd have got past the point where we still need them."

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