A wave rolls in behind and pushes me up a rocky shelf. I grab a ledge and haul myself up, dragging the heavy catch bag behind me.
I look over at my twin brother Bazza who is already squeezing out of his wetsuit. “You been eating too many pies bro”, I say to him cheekily, as he drags the top up and over his belly.
He smiles. He normally brings out a barb about me being too skinny, but he lets it slide.
“Man that was awesome out there”, he says. He opens up our catch bag, which has some nice fat paua (abalone) all stuck together. We pull them out and start going through them to make sure we’re all legal.
He starts counting them and comes up with 21, one above our legal limit of 10 each. He hops down into the water and sticks one of them back on a rock, then clambers back up beside me.
I sit there soaking up an amazing place. We’re on the rocks out from bluff hill, the very southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Stretching out from us is Stewart Island, and beyond that… Antarctica.
It’s a remarkable place here. Ever since Barry shifted down to Riverton some 15 years ago, we’ve been coming here to get a feed of paua. Other places we dived at were hit and miss, but every time we came here, we always managed to get a good feed.
“You know they’re about to open this up to commercial divers aye”, Barry says finally.
I look over at Barry, who is deep in thought.
“How come”, I reply, suddenly worried that my personal paua bed will soon be taken from me?
“Well the commercial guys have applied to the ministry to access 25km of recreational only bed. And sadly it includes this area here”, Barry sweeps his hand out around our rocky bay.
“Do you reckon they’ll get it? I mean most of the coastline is already open to commercial boys. Why do they need this little area as well?”
“Oh they got shitloads of area already. I think it is over 350km of Otago / Southland coastline that is full commercial take. But the trouble they got is they’ve overfished their beds. They’ve had to start seeding their areas with paua because the stocks are now too low to replenish naturally. And now they’re looking at the last few recreational beds where thankfully there are good stocks… and they’re wanting them as well…” Bazza’s voice trails off.
“The trouble Baz is the government only really values commercial activities. They place no value on us coming here and getting a feed. When a commercial bloke pulls in a paua here, he pays a bit of income tax. Then the paua is exported to Japan so there are some foreign exchange earnings as well. The government likes that. But when you and I come here and take a few… Well it is lost revenue as far as the government is concerned. They couldn’t give a shit about us coming here for a snorkel and getting a feed. For them it is all about the money.”
Bazza starts putting the paua back in our catch bag. “Pete, I’ll let you into a secret. When I was a commercial diver working this coastline we used to look at recreational zones like this with envy. I remember driving right past here many times in the boat and wishing we could come in here. Me and the boys could clean this area out in no time… and we’d make a killing in the process. Places like this have big old paua – some of them up to 40 years old. Remember our limit was measured in tons, not tens.”
A larger wave smacks the rocky shelf beneath me and shoots up, licking my feet, before it slides back away.
“I’ll tell ya something else”, Bazza continues. “And this is why we should keep this area as it is. When I was diving commercially, we always used to target the tourist spots for paua just before the holidays. We knew when the holiday makers would arrive, so we’d get in a few weeks before them. I regret it now. But it was just business back then…”
There’s a long silence between us. It is like someone has draped a cloud over us, and the joy of our dive has been replaced with gloom.
In many ways this battle between commercial and recreational interests goes right to the heart of what it is to be a New Zealander. Throughout our lives, Bazza and I, like so many other Kiwis, have always been able to hop in or on the water, and get a decent feed. Almost anywhere. And its one of the things I value most about this amazing country. Sadly, in so many places overseas, locals were weaned long ago from catching their own seafood, as commercial interests took over.
Sadly today, it seems New Zealand is in the same slippery slope. The government and its ministries are hell-bent on squeezing as much as they can from commercial fishing interests, but they are destroying the way or life of so many kiwis in the process. But the trouble is it is incremental, and most people simply have no idea it is happening. But if we don’t stand up, we’ll end up like so many other places where commercial fishing takes everything, and locals see their most prized foods simply shipped offshore to feed wealthy Asians and others who are prepared to pay anything.
Pete Bethune, 16 April 2013
In respect of the proposals put forward in Paper 2013/06 my preferred option is 1, to retain commercial harvest prohibitions.