AN ‘accidental fishery officer’

More time for Surfing: Gisborne’s Martin Williams relaxes at home after ending more than three decades of work as a frontline fishery officer. Picture by Paul Rickard
SAD SCENE: A large haul of illegal crayfish seized in 1996.
ENFORCING FISHERIES LAWS IN SUB-ANTARCTIC: HMNZS Wellington approaching a Russian trawler in 1989.
A Wasp helicopter on board HMNZS Wellington.
The boarding party heads off to inspect the trawler.
EARLY DAYS: Ohiwa Harbour mussel survey, with the reliable MAF Holden Kingswood.

I started working for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1979 as a fisheries management technician based in Gisborne.

My duties involved undertaking scientific surveys and getting attacked by octopus, a man-eating gurnard (I kid you not) and a pod of Hector’s dolphins.

I spent months going through 110 large preserving jars of mud and sand — which I am still receiving therapy for — as it all had to be looked at under a microscope. It was called a “benthic survey”.

As a “newbie” fisheries technician, pranks were played while working on New Zealand research vessels — such as “grab the brown blob thing” . . . only to discover it was a blind electric ray, after receiving a decent electric shock.

I did a few trips on the WJ Scott, conducting trawl surveys down the South Island. Taking otoliths (ear stones) from hapuka was not recommended if feeling sea sick. I soon discovered that after surgically opening up the head of the poor fish (with a hack saw), banging the head on the wooden boards allowed the otoliths to fall out — a far more efficient system then using tweezers — and reduced the number of times I threw up.

I learned how to remove squid stuck in the trawl meshes by biting their tails and then pulling them out by your teeth. Since then I have always enjoyed squid as a meal.

Moving on from a technician, I became a trainee fishery officer in 1984 — initially based in Nelson for two years before transferring to Napier for another two years then back to Gisborne in 1987.

Not the first choice

Becoming a fishery officer was not my first choice, but I had become somewhat disillusioned after working on an employment PEP scheme where I sampled sewage from local outfalls for analysis to determine fat content. This was a crappy job so I decided I needed a better career choice.

I then applied for jobs with fisheries, police and Ministry of Transport, and was accepted for all three but took the fishery officer position first.

Six weeks after arriving in Nelson, I found out I had been accepted into the police — so told my district compliance manager that I was resigning as I wasn’t that interested in fishing or fish, and in fact hated fishing. I did apologise profusely.

On sleeping on this decision I had a change of heart, and the next day I asked my manager if he could just ignore what I had said the day before, so 33 years later I was still working in fisheries as an “accidental fishery officer”.

In the early days, fishery officers were required to complete 35 days at sea a year on observer and transhipment duties aboard vessels operating in our Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Russian vessels were an eye-opener as you were closely monitored by the commissar, the person responsible for the political education of the crew. Friday night entertainment was political propaganda movies where you viewed a range of inspirational movies, with a distinct Russian political focus.

The next time I encountered Russian trawlers was in 1989 with the first joint MAF and Ministry of Defence deployment to inspect the deepwater fishing fleet operating in the sub-Antarctic fisheries waters.

This operation demonstrated New Zealand’s ability to enforce fisheries laws in even the most inhospitable and remote areas of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

HMNZS Wellington

The navy’s frigate the HMNZS Wellington was deployed to operate in the waters about 500km south of Stewart Island.

An air force Orion patrol was used to locate the fleet and the HMNZS Wellington’s Wasp helicopter was then deployed to find it.

I was part of a six-man boarding party. On my first boarding I got swamped when I was too slow getting up the rope ladder — with temperatures below 4 degrees, it was invigorating to say the least.

Of the 12 Soviet ships operating under joint ventures to New Zealand fishing companies in those days, only two were cited, for wrongly-tied chafer gear in their trawl nets.

I learned a few things, such as you never vomit into the chemical toilets — and there is some valid scientific reason for this. Bags were provided, which suffice to say I kept close at hand.

Zero gravity techniques were employed to access your bunk in heavy seas, as timing and speed were essential to prevent getting bounced off the ceiling. Seat belts were provided in the bunks.

I received a “tot of rum” on the last lake class navy vessel to dish it up around 1990, before it was discontinued. I got a double ration — which I do not recommend. Let’s say I wasn’t capable of splicing the main brace after this.

Whitebait patrols in the Haast area of the South Island involved driving a 4WD down the roughest tracks I have been on, then jumping on a motocross bike to reach the whitebaiters.

To this day I have never met such a range of eccentric fishers — they were having range wars. When offered a cup of tea at a whitebaiter’s shack, the dead rat was first removed from the water tank before the water was boiled up. Tea tasted fine after that!

I rescued baby dolphins in Nelson, individually catching and releasing each one back to the main pod.

We carried out marine farm inspections in the Marlborough Sounds using the patrol vessel Wairoa, a floating museum with a top speed of 10 knots.

The trickiest part of the patrols was operating the toilet system, which was below the water line and involved a complex arrangement of pumps and valves.

I was the first team leader appointed in New Zealand, then had various reincarnations with different titles over the years.

Struck by lightning

The most exciting thing that has happened to me over the past 33 years was getting struck by lightning.

Worst thing: getting throttled, eye gouged and nearly drowned. But luckily these types of attacks are rare.

Returning to a brighter topic, the lightning strike.

In 2013, while patrolling Sponge Bay, Gisborne, I and another fishery officer were struck by lightning. I can attest to time dilation, the most brilliant flash of light, heat and a sound like a bomb has gone off next to you. Your internal voice also provides a commentary saying you have just been struck by lightning.

I did not transform into a genius with telepathic powers, and did not even win Lotto.

The rat attack a few weeks later, funnily enough, disturbed me more than the lightning strike — again at Sponge Bay.

Over the years the fishery officer uniform has changed for the better. The old summer uniform was a shocker, with teal shorts and blue walk socks, Roman sandals optional. The 1970s court jacket was clearly influenced by the disco era.

The biggest crayfish bust I was involved in resulted in the seizure of 636 rock lobster.

All were released back to sea after going through a measuring and recording process.

The Coastwatch TV series saw Gisborne compliance officers at work within our district, so I can add poor acting to my CV.

While compliance is an important part of the job, I also had many an enjoyable experience giving talks to local schools. Swimming action man and sunbathing Barbie, giant crabs, and a variety of exotic fish were popular. The gulper eel (sometimes called the pelican eel) caused the biggest sensation, as these are one of the more bizarre sea creatures you will see with their gigantic jaws — and likely gave some kids nightmares.

Making a difference

I hope my years of working as a frontline fishery officer have made a difference and at the very least I know thousands of undersize crayfish, paua and kina appreciated my efforts when returned to the sea.

I’m leaving the job as age catches up on all of us, and I can no longer do justice to frontline compliance work . Now is as good a time as any to exit, before a mobility scooter replaces the MPI 4WD.

I may or may not have retired and will see what the future holds.

I am leaving knowing we have a dedicated team of fishery officers and honorary fishery officers looking after our precious resource and ensuring our fisheries remain sustainable now and in the future.

This is only a snippet of what occurs when you become an “accidental fishery officer”.

Has the job aged me? I’ll let the readers decide.

I started working for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1979 as a fisheries management technician based in Gisborne.

My duties involved undertaking scientific surveys and getting attacked by octopus, a man-eating gurnard (I kid you not) and a pod of Hector’s dolphins.

I spent months going through 110 large preserving jars of mud and sand — which I am still receiving therapy for — as it all had to be looked at under a microscope. It was called a “benthic survey”.

As a “newbie” fisheries technician, pranks were played while working on New Zealand research vessels — such as “grab the brown blob thing” . . . only to discover it was a blind electric ray, after receiving a decent electric shock.

I did a few trips on the WJ Scott, conducting trawl surveys down the South Island. Taking otoliths (ear stones) from hapuka was not recommended if feeling sea sick. I soon discovered that after surgically opening up the head of the poor fish (with a hack saw), banging the head on the wooden boards allowed the otoliths to fall out — a far more efficient system then using tweezers — and reduced the number of times I threw up.

I learned how to remove squid stuck in the trawl meshes by biting their tails and then pulling them out by your teeth. Since then I have always enjoyed squid as a meal.

Moving on from a technician, I became a trainee fishery officer in 1984 — initially based in Nelson for two years before transferring to Napier for another two years then back to Gisborne in 1987.

Not the first choice

Becoming a fishery officer was not my first choice, but I had become somewhat disillusioned after working on an employment PEP scheme where I sampled sewage from local outfalls for analysis to determine fat content. This was a crappy job so I decided I needed a better career choice.

I then applied for jobs with fisheries, police and Ministry of Transport, and was accepted for all three but took the fishery officer position first.

Six weeks after arriving in Nelson, I found out I had been accepted into the police — so told my district compliance manager that I was resigning as I wasn’t that interested in fishing or fish, and in fact hated fishing. I did apologise profusely.

On sleeping on this decision I had a change of heart, and the next day I asked my manager if he could just ignore what I had said the day before, so 33 years later I was still working in fisheries as an “accidental fishery officer”.

In the early days, fishery officers were required to complete 35 days at sea a year on observer and transhipment duties aboard vessels operating in our Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Russian vessels were an eye-opener as you were closely monitored by the commissar, the person responsible for the political education of the crew. Friday night entertainment was political propaganda movies where you viewed a range of inspirational movies, with a distinct Russian political focus.

The next time I encountered Russian trawlers was in 1989 with the first joint MAF and Ministry of Defence deployment to inspect the deepwater fishing fleet operating in the sub-Antarctic fisheries waters.

This operation demonstrated New Zealand’s ability to enforce fisheries laws in even the most inhospitable and remote areas of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

HMNZS Wellington

The navy’s frigate the HMNZS Wellington was deployed to operate in the waters about 500km south of Stewart Island.

An air force Orion patrol was used to locate the fleet and the HMNZS Wellington’s Wasp helicopter was then deployed to find it.

I was part of a six-man boarding party. On my first boarding I got swamped when I was too slow getting up the rope ladder — with temperatures below 4 degrees, it was invigorating to say the least.

Of the 12 Soviet ships operating under joint ventures to New Zealand fishing companies in those days, only two were cited, for wrongly-tied chafer gear in their trawl nets.

I learned a few things, such as you never vomit into the chemical toilets — and there is some valid scientific reason for this. Bags were provided, which suffice to say I kept close at hand.

Zero gravity techniques were employed to access your bunk in heavy seas, as timing and speed were essential to prevent getting bounced off the ceiling. Seat belts were provided in the bunks.

I received a “tot of rum” on the last lake class navy vessel to dish it up around 1990, before it was discontinued. I got a double ration — which I do not recommend. Let’s say I wasn’t capable of splicing the main brace after this.

Whitebait patrols in the Haast area of the South Island involved driving a 4WD down the roughest tracks I have been on, then jumping on a motocross bike to reach the whitebaiters.

To this day I have never met such a range of eccentric fishers — they were having range wars. When offered a cup of tea at a whitebaiter’s shack, the dead rat was first removed from the water tank before the water was boiled up. Tea tasted fine after that!

I rescued baby dolphins in Nelson, individually catching and releasing each one back to the main pod.

We carried out marine farm inspections in the Marlborough Sounds using the patrol vessel Wairoa, a floating museum with a top speed of 10 knots.

The trickiest part of the patrols was operating the toilet system, which was below the water line and involved a complex arrangement of pumps and valves.

I was the first team leader appointed in New Zealand, then had various reincarnations with different titles over the years.

Struck by lightning

The most exciting thing that has happened to me over the past 33 years was getting struck by lightning.

Worst thing: getting throttled, eye gouged and nearly drowned. But luckily these types of attacks are rare.

Returning to a brighter topic, the lightning strike.

In 2013, while patrolling Sponge Bay, Gisborne, I and another fishery officer were struck by lightning. I can attest to time dilation, the most brilliant flash of light, heat and a sound like a bomb has gone off next to you. Your internal voice also provides a commentary saying you have just been struck by lightning.

I did not transform into a genius with telepathic powers, and did not even win Lotto.

The rat attack a few weeks later, funnily enough, disturbed me more than the lightning strike — again at Sponge Bay.

Over the years the fishery officer uniform has changed for the better. The old summer uniform was a shocker, with teal shorts and blue walk socks, Roman sandals optional. The 1970s court jacket was clearly influenced by the disco era.

The biggest crayfish bust I was involved in resulted in the seizure of 636 rock lobster.

All were released back to sea after going through a measuring and recording process.

The Coastwatch TV series saw Gisborne compliance officers at work within our district, so I can add poor acting to my CV.

While compliance is an important part of the job, I also had many an enjoyable experience giving talks to local schools. Swimming action man and sunbathing Barbie, giant crabs, and a variety of exotic fish were popular. The gulper eel (sometimes called the pelican eel) caused the biggest sensation, as these are one of the more bizarre sea creatures you will see with their gigantic jaws — and likely gave some kids nightmares.

Making a difference

I hope my years of working as a frontline fishery officer have made a difference and at the very least I know thousands of undersize crayfish, paua and kina appreciated my efforts when returned to the sea.

I’m leaving the job as age catches up on all of us, and I can no longer do justice to frontline compliance work . Now is as good a time as any to exit, before a mobility scooter replaces the MPI 4WD.

I may or may not have retired and will see what the future holds.

I am leaving knowing we have a dedicated team of fishery officers and honorary fishery officers looking after our precious resource and ensuring our fisheries remain sustainable now and in the future.

This is only a snippet of what occurs when you become an “accidental fishery officer”.

Has the job aged me? I’ll let the readers decide.

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