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The Waikawa fishing fleet – Te Kahurangi, Sea Hawke II and Pacific Challenger.

Waikawa’s fruits of the sea – the highly prized scampi.

Scampi the latest success for Waikawa company

Monday 20 July 2015

The Connor family of Picton have built a thriving local and export seafood business that is barely known even within their home province of Marlborough. Starting out with a 30-foot vessel, brothers Geoff and Steve Connor have overcome many obstacles to build a successful business out of the Waikawa Fishing Company, its profile suddenly boosted when their catch of scampi was fed recently to the President of China.

When President Xi Jingping lunched with Auckland's business and Chinese community late last year, the chef insisted that the Connors' scampi was to be on the menu. In China New Zealand scampi can command a price of $300 a kilo. Prestigious Huka Lodge is one of the few New Zealand restaurants supplied by Waikawa Fishing Company with the sweet-tasting scampi which presents beautifully on a plate and is a real treat for anyone who enjoys kai moana.

Christine and Amber-Louise Connor have attended a two-day NZTE course on doing business with China. Most of the scampi catch is sold, via a broker, into the Chinese market. A Government tender form emerged in 2009 for 57 tonne of unused quota for scampi. The Connors found a way to secure the quota. Trouble was, scampi is a deep sea species caught in waters well offshore and expensive freezers are required to process them at sea But they perservered and today their boat the Sea Hawke is most often at sea, almost constantly catching scampi under the 57 tonne annual quota. These are caught in waters below 400m in an area known as Mernoo Bank off the Kaikoura coastline.

Last year, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment awarded a $7.8m grant to the company, in collaboration with the Cawthron Institute to do six years of research on scampi. The University of Auckland and underwater equipment manufacturer Zebra Tech are also involved. Cawthron's lead project scientist Dr Shaun Ogilvie says the initiative marks the first major advance in the scampi fishery since it began in the late 1980s and "its success will revolutionise the scampi industry." He can see it increasing tenfold from its current $21m export market size within 15 years.

The programme aims to develop more sustainable, commercially attractive harvesting methods and establish land-based aquaculture systems for domestication. The team will be combining sustainable Maori harvesting methods with revolutionary technology to help achieve their goals.

"Through the development of more efficient, effective and environmentally friendly harvesting technologies we're aiming to support the industry to increase to $200 million in annual exports by 2030," Dr Ogilvie says.

A new hatchery has been built at Cawthron Aquaculture Park near Nelson to improve understanding of New Zealand scampi and establish the world's first captive breeding programme for the species. The Cawthron Institute, a worldleader in aquaculture research, breeding and farming systems, was the first in the world to domesticate New Zealand's iconic Greenshell mussel and is now working with industry to breed for desired traits.

The scampi programme will be advised and guided by an international technical advisory group of industry, marine technology and science experts including Maori fishing quota holders and marine technology, science and fishing industry peers from Scotland, Portugal, Norway, the USA and Japan. The growth and success of the scampi catch is just the latest chapter in the Waikawa Fishing Company's development. It is a story of never-ending toil and financial stresses, made bearable for brothers Steve and Geoff Connor by the support of their loyal wives, Liz and Christine.

Waikawa now employs 20 staff. It starts, on one side, in Wellington in the early 1950s. Dale Connor was of Irish extraction (with some Norwegian in the mix.) His father, Jack, was a barber. Dale started working as a deckhand at age 14 and soon progressed to the interisland ferry of the time, the Tamahine. In Picton, he fell under the spell of Mildred Keenan, of Ngai Tahu and Te Ati Awa descent. Mildred had been a teacher at the Perano whaling station and, briefly, a housekeeper to the wealthy Chaytor family, a job she detested. Six children were born to the couple. Glenice, Paul, Geoff, Diana, Steve and Christine.

Glenice, now Glenice Paine, chairs the Te Ati Awa Trust and plays a leading role in iwi affairs. She recalls their parents having a different work ethic to today's generation.

"They actually lived to work rather than worked to live."

Over the years they accumulated properties, some of which were mortgaged at times to support their fishing sons. Dale had not only fallen in love with Mildred, he was seduced by the Marlborough Sounds. He found what must have felt like the perfect job; working for the Marine Department, providing supplies to the lighthouses around the Sounds. At weekends, Dale was either doing up old boats or taking his children out onto the water. Geoff had seven years as a fitter and turner at the Picton freezing works until it closed in 1983. Steve, three years his junior, caught garfish while still at school, storing it in the science class freezers and selling it to classmates. He, Geoff and sister Diana also scallop dredged after school to supplement the family income. But, at 14, Steve was sick of being at Queen Charlotte College. Dale took him to Nelson where Steve signed on as a fishing boat deckhand with Sealord.

"I didn't want to be a fisherman,' says Steve, adding with a twinkle in his eye. "I wanted to be an astronomer."

He thanks his lucky stars for the results. Whereas Geoff was earning $28 a week at the freezing works, Steve was quickly pulling in hundreds of dollars a week. This was the heyday of snapper. He was offered a Visa Gold Card at 16, only he was too young to be able to accept it. Earning big money made no difference to what was a tough environment for a teenager, even a wealthy one. Returning home to Picton, there was good money to be earned as a deckhand. The two brothers joined forces and went fishing together.

The Serena, a 30-footer owned by a Picton fisherman had been repossessed. Geoff initially stayed on at the Picton works but at weekends worked on the Serena. Then he quit and he and Steve started fishing together. After three months, the 41-foot Mavis, owned by Nelson Fisheries, became available. Interest rates were at 25 percent in the face of a credit squeeze imposed by Prime Minister Sir Rob Muldoon.

Geoff acknowledges how their parents, Dale and Mildred, stepped in to help. "Mum and Dad mortgaged a section." It secured the Mavis for the brothers and it wasn't the only time Dale and Mildred mortgaged property to help their sons.

Built in 1919, the Mavis was only 6 foot across. "It was like a long canoe," says Steve. The brothers first went gill-netting for butterfish. They would spend two to three days out, as far west as D'Urville Island, packing up to two tonnes into the hold and icing it down. "It was hard yakka but we loved doing it," says Geoff. The returns were not great. "In our first year of fishing we made about $3000. The girls carried us. We ate a lot of fish." Steve recalls Christine coming down in her bank uniform to help catch garfish near Picton. Other than their wives, parents and whanau, the only other help the brothers received was from a couple of local fishermen. "John and Allan used to show us where to go," says Steve. "We learned the hard way in fishing."

According to Steve, others in the Picton/Sounds fishing industry were taking bets when they would go broke. They did later get continued support in their fishing business from Peter Talley and Ngai Tahu Seafood. The brothers have outlasted most of their contemporaries. Geoff recalls 20 or 30 fishing boats working out of Picton; now there may be eight or nine and the Connors own three of them. After chasing butterfish, the brothers turned to catching shark in the rougher waters of Cook Strait. They were receiving $1.40 a kg.

Steve talks about hauling in 3km of rig net by hand. They didn't have a winch.

"We'd get a case of rig and then re-set it.' "We developed a lot of things in Cook Strait which no one had used before."

These were innovations like setting lines differently, varying the distances between hooks, altering the lengths of the droppers and looking for new grounds.

"We then decided to go paua diving," says Steve. "It paid the same as shark and we could get them from the Sounds. The only thing was back in those days there were real sharks about."

One day he came up from diving to drop more paua in the inflatable ring and saw a huge eye looking across the ring at him. It was an orca. There was still some fishing at times and one occasion the Mavis got caught in a storm near Cape Campbell. "She just about sunk on us," says Steve. "We decided we needed a bigger and better boat.''

The brothers talked to Finn Jorgensen, whose family they'd grown up with. In 1984, the Waikawa Fishing Company Ltd was formed with the brothers and their wives as directors.

Finn was an initial shareholder until the boat was paid off. FV Motuara was launched in 1984. The 45-foot fishing vessel was named after Motuara Island, guarding the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound, long home to Mildred's whanau.

The story goes that Mildred's mother was the last person born on the island, which had been a farm but is now a bird sanctuary. In the late 1980s, the company bought the Swiftsure off the Guard brothers. The boat was extended to 45 feet and used for catching shark, ling and groper, and diving for paua and kina.

After a while, the brothers decided to bring their parents into their business. Christine and sometimes Liz have always overseen the financial management of the company; Dale Finn Jorgensen had sold up and Jim Carey was looking for work. In 1992 they had Carey's Picton boatyard design and build the Te Kahurangi, with the condition he bought the Swiftsure.

The 63-foot Te Kahurangi has proved a good investment. It is still working for Waikawa today. Te Kahurangi was soon put to work fishing, catching bluefin tuna. Each tuna was commanding $900 and more in the Japanese fish markets. now helped with the bookwork and the intricacies of the quota system. Glenice says like some other Maori businesses, her brothers sometimes made decisions that were more about people than the business.

"Overall it's about whanau rather than lots and lots of dollars."

In the early 1990s, another storm off Cape Palliser nearly saw the Swiftsure sink.

Finn Jorgensen had sold up and Jim Carey was looking for work. In 1992 they had Carey's Picton boatyard design and build the Te Kahurangi, with the condition he bought the Swiftsure. The 63-foot Te Kahurangi has proved a good investment. It is still working for Waikawa today. Te Kahurangi was soon put to work fishing, catching bluefin tuna. Each tuna was commanding $900 and more in the Japanese fish markets.

By the mid-90s, another vessel, the FV Tempest, a 65-footer, was bought on the condition that it came with a crayfish quota for Marlborough/ Canterbury's CRA5 zone. "Geoff and I now part. He runs the Tempest and I run the Te Kahurangi," says Steve. In fact the brothers had always divided the duties after an early incident on the Mavis when Geoff accidentally hit Steve in the head with the back of a knife on the small deck.

From there, although both were qualified skippers, Steve was in charge on the decks and Geoff the engines and maintenance. Geoff enjoyed the crayfishing, with 30 tonnes being caught in a season. With two boats and income from both tuna and crays, things were looking good for the company and the two families. In the late 1990s they bought a third vessel, RV Star Keys, a 65-foot aluminium boat designed and built in Australia. Geoff took charge of the vessel.

The next generation of Connor whanau started to emerge. The siblings had always been involved. The boys' youngest sister, Christine, for one, had worked on the deck when Geoff was crayfishing. Diana had helped in the office. Her son Michael Beech had qualified as a skipper and came on-board. Glenice's son Steve worked as a deckhand. Geoff and Liz's sons, Alex, Lance and David, had always been involved in the fishing but Alex and Lance began joining the crew.

Lance did a stint on a Sealord trawler before returning to manage port operations for the family company and act as a relief skipper. Alex gave up the boats after breaking an ankle when jumping onto a wharf. Two vessels, the Oceania and the Polaris were leased, each on a short-term basis, to pursue wetfish opportunities.

A Connor family member was put on board to work and keep an eye on things. In early 2009, Christine sent the brothers a photo of a vessel, RV Sea Hawke II, put up for sale by Ngai Tahu Seafood Ltd. The negotiating position was that the Australian-built 25m vessel came with a five year quota for crayfish and wetfish.

When the brothers started fishing, Picton had a string of fishing families. The Guards, the Fishburns, the Peranos, the Hebberleys and others. Now most have gone or moved on to something else. Geoff notes that the age of those in the fishing industry is increasing, with less new blood coming in than is required. "There are still fishermen dropping out today because they can't afford to come in." Liz points to the requirements now imposed on the industry as a negative signal to anyone contemplating a career in the fishing industry.

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