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Sinking no deterrent to Matt's lifetime of fishing

Matt Hardyment has been a member of the NZ Federation of Commercial Fishermen for 16 years. This is his story on the triumphs and challenges of being an inshore fisherman.

Bill Moore

As a young fisherman Matt Hardyment was involved in one of the New Zealand industry’s most dramatic sinkings, surviving nearly 40 perilous hours in a liferaft with six companions. Nearly four decades later he’s still going strong – but facing an uncertain future as an inshore Danish-seiner.

Hardyment, 61, grew up in Nelson and developed his taste for fishing along the Tasman Bay coastline, using the family bach at Kaiteriteri as his base, going out with a hook and a line every day. At 13 he was crewing part-time on Greg Heald’s scallop boat Wairau.

“His crewman was always inebriated at the weekend and I used to get shanghaied.” His schooling ended at 15 – “as soon as I could get out of there’’ – his lifelong career beginning straight away, scalloping and set-netting with Neil Harvey on Weemay. Later came Conquest, and then pair-trawling for snapper on Stargazer.

As a 19-year-old he stepped up to the 36-metre Hawea, built in Korea for Skeggs Foods Ltd, before a three-yearstint in Australia, fishing out of Lakes Entrance in Victoria. In late 1983 it was back to Nelson and Hawea, but not for long. At the end of June 1984, the big trawler suddenly sank in heavy night-time seas off the West Coast of the South Island, near Kahurangi Point.

Hardyment was on watch at the time, the only crew member not in his bunk.

It was blowing a 40-knot northerly at the time, he said, when he noticed the stern of the boat riding very low in the water.

“I got the skipper up straight away. It was only about three minutes before she rolled over on her side and went down.”

There was just time to get everyone into the wheelhouse and launch the life raft, with Hardyment trying to make a Mayday call amid scenes he said were something like those in the Titanic movie.

“When the windows start bursting in, it’s a bit freaky. I had to climb up the side of the cupboards to get out the wheelhouse door.”

The worst moment was when the sinking boat began to drag the life raft under, but then the painter line snapped, as it was supposed to. After that it was nearly 40 hours in the raft, “the coldest I’ve ever been in my life”.

It was only after the boat had missed its morning and night radio schedules that concern arose ashore, with skipper Roy Aloff’s wife Pam, the local marine radio operator, raising the alarm.

The crew were picked up by Andy Smith on the Sealord boat Shemara after Smith went against official advice and followed his own instincts to determine where to search. Instead of winning plaudits as he should have, Smith was later criticised by officialdom, Hardyment said.

It wasn’t a hard decision to return to fishing after that, he said. “What else was I going to do? I’d only ever done fishing. I was back on the small boats again within a couple of weeks, working with Mark Roach on the Starlight.”

However, it was soon back to Skeggs, working on the Resolution II, which had been lengthened to 27 metres after beaching on the West Coast the same night Hawea was lost. This was another dramatic episode with the five-man crew winched one-by-one from the pitching wheelhouse by Takaka helicopter pilot Bob McElhinney after the boat was swept through a narrow channel into Nguroa Bay north of Whanganui Inlet.

Studying for his marine tickets during these years, Hardyment became Resolution II skipper and held that job for two years before joining the Wanaka, sister ship to Hawea. He said he “jumped around quite a lot” during that period, also working for a time on the first of the big trawlers brought to New Zealand, Sealord’s Boston Seafire.

With his job at Skeggs given to someone else while he was completing his deepsea skipper’s ticket, Hardyment then shifted to Nelson company Donker Marine, first skippering Recovery II for six years and later Tasman Viking. He stayed with that boat when Donker sold it to Craig Boote in 2002, continuing for eight more years. These were deepwater years catching orange roughy, alfonsino and hoki, mainly off the North Island’s east coast.

In 2005, Hardyment had bought his own boat, the 12-metre Kiwi, leaving Tasman Viking in 2009 to go Danish seining, a lesser-known fishing method that he likes. Once there were five Danish seiners operating out of Port Nelson. Like other forms of inshore fishing, it has shrunk. Now there are two.

Instead of trawling a net for an extended time, a Danish seiner pays out a very long rope in a diamond shape with the net a nautical mile (1.852km) from the boat. The boat then stays still or moves ahead very slowly, with the gear being wound back to it rather than dragged behind it. Hardyment said this method was widely used in New Zealand in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“It’s environmentally friendly. The thing that impressed me was that when you catch a fish, it’s always going to be alive – the fish just get gathered up by the rope and won’t go into the net until the last 15 to 20 minutes of the tow.” It is also much more fuel-efficient, using less than a third than an equivalent inshore trawler.

Flounder are the target species, with gurnard, John dory, rig and a few snapper also being taken. The flounder are exported to Australia through Donna Wells’ Nelson company Finestkind, the other fish going to Aquafresh, another Nelson company.

Hardyment usually fishes alone and counts 100kgs of flounder as a good day’s work, tying up by 5pm.

“I like being my own boss for a change – although I’m not so sure now, as I’m getting older it’s a lot of hard work.”

For the last six years he and his wife Denise have lived in Charleston, south of Westport, with Kiwi remaining Nelson-based, and he intersperses his Danish seining with chasing tuna off the West Coast.

Hardyment has been a Federation member for 16 years and is currently president of the Port Nelson Fishermen’s Association.

He said the Federation was essential to fight the fishermen’s battles with the Government and its agencies, and was doing a good job under the leadership of president Doug Saunders-Loder.

It was disappointing when fishermen didn’t join and support the Federation, he said. These were the same people who complained that nobody was helping them. Hardyment sees a hard future for inshore fishermen, facing uninformed opposition from the Greens, inshore pollution mainly caused by forestry sediment runoff flushed from the land, and the scourge of methamphetamine limiting availability of suitable crew.

The loss of Tasman Bay’s sandy bottom had ended the scallop fishery and was also now badly impacting fish species, especially flounder, with no solution in sight. “I don’t know how mud turns back to sand.” Better forestry management was essential and urgent, he said.

P was a huge problem for all New Zealand’s primary industries, with users of that drug especially dangerous to fishermen. “You don’t want to take one of them out to sea, they’ll throw you over the side. They’re crazy.”

There would always be good money in highvalue species like crayfish and paua which could be taken without bycatch, he said.

“But the Government’s never been able to get its head around multispecies fishing like inshore fishing, and they still can’t.” Recalling a legendary incident when a senior MPI staffer – since retired – was intentionally locked in a freezer at the Chatham Islands, Hardyment said relations between the government department, now Fisheries NZ, and the fishermen had never been good, while politicians favoured “greenies” over fishermen.

“Politics is just a load of bullshit,” Hardyment said. “They trade us off to fix something else. The Government needs to listen to us fishermen, especially the old, experienced ones. We do know about fish.”

He disagrees with the endlessly repeated claim that New Zealand’s quota management system is the best in the world, arguing that Australia has much bettermanaged multi-species fishery, with more emphasis on detailed reporting than using a punitive deemed value system.

“They listen to the fishermen more. You only have to go to Lakes Entrance now and walk up and down the wharf. It’s all beautiful flash boats – not the old bloody dungery things that we’ve got here.”

Despite these issues, he intends to carry on at least until he reaches retirement age.

“You can still make a living out of it. I just work for myself, because I’ve got my own little quota package, but anybody new coming in is going to really struggle … it’s very hard now that most of the quota has gone to the big companies, because they can dictate your prices.”

 What keeps him going? Hardyment laughs: “Always hoping things are going to get better.”

And in proof that the lure of fishing never leaves when it gets in the blood, he said that while he doesn’t hire crew these days, “a couple of old fishermen that have retired occasionally come out with me for a day’s fishing”.

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