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Bring on electronic reporting, says veteran skipper

After more than 35 years of fishing, Tony Roach is more positive than ever about the industry’s future – and looking forward to the benefits of electronic monitoring.

Bill Moore, Seafood New Zealand magazine

The 51-year-old Nelsonian who grew up in a fishing family and started earning at sea during the school holidays has built up a multi-million-dollar business that runs two boats and employs nine men.

Contracted to Talley’s for 25 years, he owns the boats but no quota. As fresh fish trawlers his boats are limited to six days at sea but trips were getting shorter and shorter, he said, “because the fishing’s so good”.

By his own reckoning having spent more time on the sea than on land, Roach was involved in oystering and scalloping in the top of the South in the 40-footer (12metre) fleet and spent many years in the Cook Strait hoki fishery using the 15m Pursuit before buying the 21m Corsair.

He’s taken that boat to fish for orange roughy outside the 200-mile limit but these days mainly uses it in the West Coast hoki fishery out of Greymouth or Westport, Cook Strait, the upper East Coast and the lower North Island, fishing in areas three, seven and eight. He keeps the young crew on Pursuit working the inshore fishery during the summer and then mainly on the West Coast targeting flats, cod and gurnard.

“It gives them experience and training with the idea that they might step up to the Corsair one day,” he said. “You can’t afford mistakes on a bigger boat, it’s just too costly. The Pursuit is a good training platform for them – not as much pressure, not as many crew.”

One of the first with under 28m boats to trial electronic monitoring, using both the Deckhand and Olrac systems and finding strengths in both, Roach said the compulsory digital reporting being introduced this year could greatly benefit the industry.

He admitted to sleepless nights worrying about the loss of his intellectual property built up through his decades of fishing. It was more natural for fishermen to guard their best spots, sometimes even pulling up nets and moving when another boat came into the area.

But with the trust built up through longstanding relationships with quota owners to counterbalance that, he said he saw big advantages in having highly accurate, up-to-date information to improve fisheries management and to combat the industry’s critics.

“We get a lot of people poking sticks at us and throwing stones, but most of it’s just rubbish.

“Hopefully with electronic monitoring we can get a good picture of what’s going on,” he said. “We’re just fighting the battle on so many fronts, we’ve got to stand together, get all this information together quickly and accurately and be able to say, ‘That’s not correct, this is how it is, and here’s the proof of it’.”

At the same time, he and other fishermen are seeking guarantees that government agencies won’t share the individual information that could undermine their ability to catch the fish, particularly the “marks” they’ve learned to use over the years.

However, the practical side of electronic monitoring was not a threat but an opportunity, Roach said.

“It’s really good. It’s simple and quick, it’s a lot better than paperwork and you’re not going to get so many mistakes because it doesn’t let you put the mistakes in when you’re inputting. The beauty of it is that when you shoot and haul the mark you’re already on the plotter, the position’s already in, so all the repetitive paperwork that we have to do is going to go out the door. It’s a time-saver, bigtime.”

He said many fishermen had left school early and were prone to making unintentional mistakes with their paperwork, often simple things such as writing in the wrong date.

“We get a lot of forms sent back with basic errors, but it’s costing the industry lots of money and time.”

The electronic systems would do away with all that.

“We still haven’t got to the bottom of the cost, but me and my skipper Les Eves are both on the same page – we can’t wait to start using it.”

He said it would help the business and sharing the data with Talley’s would allow for the catch figures to be available every day, allowing pre-selling.

“That equates to better prices, planes can be booked – it will just make the whole system better.”

He is also hoping that the flow of accurate, fast information will allow for TACs to be lifted or lowered where they should be.

“With a bit of luck it will happen faster and instead of seeing a stock change of four to six species a year, we might see 30 or 40 TAC changes. We need to manage our fisheries better and we need to make money where we can make money – and we just need to be more efficient.”

Roach calls himself a passionate advocate for the industry, devoting hours to answering social media critics – and an equally keen recreational fisherman during his leave time. He is disappointed at the lack of support from officialdom when claims of overfishing or bad practices are made.

“Our ministry hasn’t stood up and said no, you’re wrong, our fish stocks are in good condition – 90- odd percent of our fish are caught from stocks that are sustainable and very healthy,” he said.

“Our catch effort is going down all the time, we’re doing less days at sea, less days fishing and we’re catching our quota easier every year – our fish stocks are getting better.”

The biggest problem was getting the fish in the right amounts to the factories and getting “top dollar’’ for it.

“We’ve got a set bit of quota on a bit of paper so the only way we can make more money is to reduce our footprint, reduce our fuel costs, and land our fish in better quality – so that all combines in bigger meshes, less discards, less small fish. We’re working really hard to make sure that our fish quality is really good, our tows are shorter, and we’re still catching more and more fish.”

Sustainability and environmental effects were key issues for those left in today’s fishing industry.

“People go on about us bottom trawling, it’s a bad word, but at the end of the day, we’re using a combination of rope and wire for sweeps and our trawl doors are all foiled like aeroplane wings, so they don’t have to touch the bottom, or have only a light footprint on the bottom. Because for us, the less drag, the less footprint – everything we can do less, we save fuel and we make more money.

“The things that people point to – we’re working so hard to make it better, because it saves us money. All that’s a no-brainer.”

He said when the electronic data was charted it would show that the inshore boats didn’t fish a large area.

“We’re continually going back to the same old spots, and we’re catching our fish the same way – we’ll be able to show them that and the information will be accurate and up-to-date and when they point the finger at us we’ll be able to go, ‘That’s not right. The fish stocks are strong’.”

The monitoring would also help fishermen and officials deal with the emerging problems around changes in water temperature that were affecting fish populations, Roach said.

For example, tarakihi and snapper were moving into more southern areas including off the South Island’s west coast, and he’d caught snapper more than 20 miles off Farewell Spit. Such changes could force boats away from some areas because they didn’t have quota for the fish they were unexpectedly catching.

“The goalposts are shifting all the time and I don’t think any of us can keep up with it. This is another thing with the electronic reporting – the flags will come up so fast, it will just make management of the fishery so much better. Accurate information is the only way we’re going to be able to move forward, to be quick enough to not send people broke and take advantage when we can, and pull back when we need to.”

Roach strongly backs the Federation’s efforts and particularly its call for unity. “We need a voice, and that’s kind of all we’ve got.

One of the main problems in the fishing industry is that we don’t stand together enough … we should be backing one another, and we don’t do enough of that.”

His father Graham was a commercial fisherman, his brothers Mark and Dennis still are, and after so many years Roach said fishing is “awesome”.

“I’ve had help, but I’ve had no handouts. It’s all done off hard work,” he said. “Every kilo of quota I fish I pay a lease on, ACE costs and government levies. I pay my share to be in the industry and I’m doing pretty well.

“It’s just getting better and better. I just love fishing. The industry is in good shape and the people who are in it these days are good operators. We’re striving to do better, and I think we’re doing a really good job now.”

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