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A skipper while still a schoolboy

The annals of the fishing industry are sprinkled with stories of youngsters going to sea but not many can claim to hold a commercial skipper’s ticket while still at high school. Matt Howden did exactly that.

Bill Moore, Seafood New Zealand magazine

Today 25-year-old Howden, one of the young achievers honoured in the 2019 Seafood Stars Awards, owns his own 16.3m trawler which he fishes out of Gisborne.

Eight years ago he was skippering a Kaikoura charter boat, taking out up to 20 people at a time on recreational day trips. That was on weekends. During the week he was at boarding school in Christchurch.

To hear him tell it, this arrangement was the most natural thing in the world. His family moved from Picton to Kaikoura when he was 13 and once he went to boarding school, he would come and help on Peter Cleall’s boat Seafarer II. Initially he did it for nothing, then as a paid deckhand.

“Almost every weekend I’d drive home from school and within quite a short amount of time I went and did my first skipper’s ticket at 17.”

A few months later Cleall’s charter skipper had a heart attack, forcing him to stay ashore for some time.

The teenager was given the helm. “I’ve been running boats since then,’’ Howden said.

His only other work experience was washing dishes in a Kaikoura café.

“I couldn’t stand the routine of it,” he said.

Before long Howden was mixing the charter work with some longlining out of Kaikoura.

“Then the boss man put a longline reel on the boat and said to go and catch fish out of Wellington when we weren’t chartering.”

So, “somewhat naively’’, he headed up the coastline to fish in Cook Strait, with two deckhands.

“We’d go up there Monday to Friday and come back in the weekends for charters on Saturday and Sunday. We lost a bit of gear and what-not but it was a huge learning curve and I eventually sorted it out.”

Seafarer II had been replaced by Hotspur when the young skipper broke his leg in a farmbike accident and decided while recovering that he wanted “a bit of change”. Five years ago he moved to Gisborne, working for Richard Kibblewhite as a skipper and a deckhand, crayfishing, longlining and gill-netting.

“The boat that we used to tie up next to was a trawler called the Hakuwai. I got talking to the owner – he was 67. I assumed he was going to retire at some time and asked if I could buy the boat, then I asked Gisborne Fisheries if I could carry on catching the quota package that went with it, and here we are now.”

Howden, who had never trawled before, was in for another steep learning curve in the months he worked on the Hakuwai before taking it over from the owner. On his first trip they did three tows before the weather forced them in.

“He said, ‘You’ll be right to take the boat out tomorrow won’t you?’ And that was it. He never came out with me again.”

That was two and a half years ago.. Today Howden sets off with a deckhand of his own on the 50-yearold kauri-hulled trawler, targeting tarakihi, gurnard, snapper, john dory, moki and trevally.

“In the winter trips can be one day and overall, we never do any more than three days, which works in well with Gisborne Fisheries’ quality requirements. We range up to 100 miles from home, but in winter we’re just out the front doorstep – we’re pretty lucky.”

As with other fishing ports, the once large inshore fleet has shrunk. Hakuwai is now one of only four Gisborne-based trawlers.

However, Howden doesn’t fear for inshore fish stocks, which he said were holding up at stable levels, even when the population base is small according to original stock size scientific data.

Tarakihi remains his staple catch and he said it was fishing sustainably.

“Population levelled off and has been consistent for at least a decade.”

He trusts the Quota Management System to safeguard stocks.

“If we didn’t have it we’d be in a world of hurt.”

A greater concern, he said, was the dearth of young people wanting to take up fishing as a career, especially those aiming to become skippers. He views himself as an anomaly, and struggles to see why sheep and beef farming still attracts many, while fishing does not.

The farming recruits had little hope of buying their own farm one day, he pointed out.

“A young fisherman has every chance of owning their own boat and business.”

Factors holding youngsters back could include pressure to get a university education, an unwillingness to do hard physical work, and “expecting to get a million dollars from day one”.

But Howden, who has settled in Gisborne with his own home but still travels to Kaikoura sometimes to catch up with family and mow his parents’ lawn, has no doubt that he’s in fishing for the long haul, enjoying the independence and variety of the job, as well as the good income.

“I love the uncertainty of it – you don’t know where you’re going to be, what you’re going to be doing, what could go wrong. I’ve got to be constantly thinking.

“We all have bad days – you can have shit weather and bad fishing, a few breakdowns, you can get frustrated like at any job – but then you swing your legs out of bed at three o’clock in the morning and carry on again. Just having a nice day, good weather and being out of the bustle of town is nice.”

Like most fishermen, he’s frustrated by the industry’s negative public image and supportive of the Federation’s efforts to work as a representative body and counter misinformation.

Fishermen were respected in countries with long fishing histories like Iceland and Demark, he said.

“We’re classed as criminals here to be honest.”

He said he used to back down when the negativity started but now stood up for himself, knowing the efforts fishermen put in to fish responsibly, obey the rules and adopt innovations to improve their performance.

“I don’t rant, I don’t get in arguments, but I’m proud of what I do.

“I don’t waste my breath a lot of the time because what I’m saying just falls on deaf ears. You can give them all the facts in the world but they only hear what they want to hear.”

That’s one reason why he enjoys the Federation conference each year, which not only sees issues being addressed with representatives of industry sectors such as MPI and Maritime New Zealand, but is also “a hell of a good time with lots of likeminded people”.

Howden said the best and worst thing about his career was being the person who makes all the decisions, with the responsibility for other lives on the boat. “You go to sea when you want, no one’s telling you what to do, where to be or when to be there.

You go out and do three hard days – you certainly sleep well after that, not just because you’re knackered, but you know you’ve given it your all.”

He said the fishermen’s voice was seldom heard in the public domain, and given the chance he would ask the industry’s critics to open their eyes, look and listen, and stay clear of nasty personal attacks and threats on social media.

“People are going to think what they’re going to think, at least just try to come at it with a level head. Try to see the other side, put your feet in our shoes.”

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