Damian Briggs

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YOB: 1943
Experience: Commercial Fisherman
Regions: Westland, Fiordland
Interview Location: Deep Water Basin, Milford Sound, NZ
Interview Date: 06 February 2016
Post Date: 01 December 2017; Copyright © 2017 Damian Briggs and Steve Crawford

1. EXPERIENCE IN AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS

CRAWFORD: Let’s start at the beginning, Damian. Where were you born and when? 

BRIGGS: Karamea, 1943. 

CRAWFORD: What is your first recollection of spending a lot of time around the water? 

BRIGGS: It was with my Grandfather in Nelson, as a kid. He used to row dinghies around, and catch Snapper in the harbour there. 

CRAWFORD: He was a commercial fisherman? 

BRIGGS: No, no. Just a Granddad.

CRAWFORD: But he was catching Snapper in the harbour? 

BRIGGS: Snapper. This is in the 1950s, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly how old would you have been? 

BRIGGS: Oh, 10-11. 

CRAWFORD: Did you visit with him up there regularly? 

BRIGGS: Yeah. All the school holidays and that. 

CRAWFORD: When you were in Greymouth, did you spend time on or around the water there? 

BRIGGS: Yeah. What happened in those days is, because it was a waterfront port town, the colliers used to work in and out of there, and the kids all went to the wharf and fished around the back of the colliers, and we got a ride on the dredge out on the bar, if you could. And that’s the way it went. 

CRAWFORD: So, playing around, working on the dinghies, doing some fishing? 

BRIGGS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: Handlining or setnetting or what? 

BRIGGS: We used to just troll up and down the river for Kahawai. You heard of Kahawai? Catch Kahawai travelling up and down the Grey River. 

CRAWFORD: Did you ever do any free diving, any Pāua diving, or anything like that? 

BRIGGS: No, no diving. 

CRAWFORD: What about handlining? 

BRIGGS: We was handlining off the wharf. And trout fished in the rivers, as kids. And later in life, always chased trout. I don’t bother now, but I did then. 

CRAWFORD: What age did you get access to a dinghy of your own? 

BRIGGS: Made my own out of a sheet of roofing iron. Used a piece of 4x2 in the front for the stem, and an apple case for the back. And then bent it around to make a transom. And then put pitch on the outside of it. And we had an outrigger with a 4x2. And paddle up and down the creek. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly how old were you then?  

BRIGGS: Same age, 10, 11, 12. 

CRAWFORD: When did you start spending time with fishing boats leaving port? 

BRIGGS: When I was 17, I went to sea the first time. On the [Nona], a commercial Crayfishing boat out of Greymouth, that. We used to line for fish in the Hokitika Trench for a start. Yeah, out here in the trench. And then after that I went south, Crayfishing for three months. They were three-month trips in those days. 

CRAWFORD: A mixed fish-Crayfish operation? 

BRIGGS: Lining for the Groper and Bluenose and Ling, out in that area there. And after that we went south, Crayfishing down here off Fiordland, down off Milford Sound

CRAWFORD: That was the same vessel? 

BRIGGS: Same boat, the [Nona] 

CRAWFORD: Roughly, what was the length of that vessel? 

BRIGGS: 56 feet. 

CRAWFORD: And three-month trips, at a go? 

BRIGGS: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: When you were line fishing, was it danlines or longlines? 

BRIGGS: They were danlines. Oh, hang on. He had a 200-hook longline. And I got to put it around the screw. [laughs]

CRAWFORD: That was as well as the danline? 

BRIGGS: They’d find the fish with the danlines, then put the 200-hook longline out. All pulled by hand. 

CRAWFORD: Was there seasonality to the line fishery, as opposed to the Cray fishery? 

BRIGGS: The Cray fishery was all the year round. But as you know, in the winter you can’t take the females - they’re all in berry. So, it wasn’t any seasons as such. What people used to do, is do one trip in the winter - which is May/June, July maybe. And then go home, and do a bit of lining out of the Trench.  And then a Christmas trip - leave about the end of October, and come back at the end of December. 

CRAWFORD: That was 17 you started doing that. How long did that continue? 

BRIGGS: I went back ashore after I’d been out there for a three-month trip, ashore for about a year. And then I went as crew on the Red Witch, with [Albert Croning], he was the Skipper. 

CRAWFORD: Where did the Red Witch sail out of? 

BRIGGS: Greymouth again. Back down, same trips, same area. 

CRAWFORD: Same gear, same patterns?

BRIGGS: Yeah. 

CRAWFORD: What was the length of that vessel? 

BRIGGS: It was 46. It was also trawling at the same time. We’d trawl for our bait - live, fresh bait. 

CRAWFORD: Bottom-trawling, midwater? 

BRIGGS: Bottom. 

CRAWFORD: And that was after a spell ashore, when you switched over to the Red Witch? 

BRIGGS: After I had about 12 months back on shore again. It was hard to get a job on a Crayfish boat. 

CRAWFORD: How long did you sail with Albert for? 

BRIGGS: Two years. And then I took over the boat. 

CRAWFORD: Got your Skipper’s certificate? 

BRIGGS: Didn’t have to get that. They never worried about them until 1969. Then I had to go and set that. I’d already been around a boat for four years. And down here I fished. 

CRAWFORD: So, you were about 21 when you were Skipper?

BRIGGS: 21 when I was Skipper on the boat, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: Same kind of gear?

BRIGGS: Yeah, same sort of set-up. Some trips you’d work from Bruce Bay, up here where the light is. You’d start and work down here, they called that the Top End. Work down as far as Haast, do your trawling along the Haast Beach. And then from Haast Beach, you might change your mind, fish around there on Open Bay Island, that’s around here. Then you might fish from Jacksons Head to Cascade Point. That’s about eight hours, so about eight miles. And then you’d work that piece there for a while. Then you’d work from there down to Big Bay, Awarua Point. And work in Big Bay. And then you might change this pattern, because you tailed [the Crayfish] at sea, in those days. So, there was no problem. You stayed and froze everything on board. 

CRAWFORD: Freezers on board?

BRIGGS: Yeah. Hold about seven tonne. You worked from Big Bay. And you might work where I’m working now - from Martins Bay, down to Milford Sound. 

CRAWFORD: So, for three months, you would work your way down that stretch? 

BRIGGS: Sometimes, if it was really good fishing at the Top End, you’d stay there. But if it wasn’t, you’d move and move, until you found some successful fishing. 

CRAWFORD: What’s the furthest south that you were fishing in those days? 

BRIGGS: I’ve never fished south of Poison Bay

CRAWFORD: Ok. In general, how long did you do that for? How long were you Skipper on the Red Witch? 

BRIGGS: Oh, till ’72. And I went back ashore. Then I brought my own boat, the first one - that was the [Malrest]. I bought it in ’72. 

CRAWFORD: Did you bring her to Milford Sound? 

BRIGGS: No, I stayed up in Greymouth. I was sick of being away, had a young family. So, I stayed and trawled out of Greymouth. Most of the trawlers from there down to Ross - which is along this big flat area here - they fished for English Sole. We used to trawl along here for Flatfish. 

CRAWFORD: Were you exclusively a trawlerman then? 

BRIGGS: All the boats in those days had their own trawl gear to catch bait. We all trawled in the little areas like we had here - anywhere there was sand - to catch Tarakihi and Gurnard.

CRAWFORD: Ok. This went from about 1972 until when? 

BRIGGS: In ’72 I bought the [Malrest]. And then I bought quite a number of boats, over the years. But then in ’74 I went in the hotel business for three years.

CRAWFORD: You were off the water for that period? 

BRIGGS: No. I still owned the trawler called the [Corora]. And every now and then, we’d take a weekend or a week off from the pub, and go trawling down at Ross again. Get enough money to pay the rates and stuff. 

CRAWFORD: Still based out of Greymouth? 

BRIGGS: Yeah. Three years in the hotel. Then I went back to sea on the Bonita, so ’81. And then the local fishermen, we formed a cooperative, named it Westfleet. And I ran that from 1981 through to 2007, I think. It was 26 years, anyways. 

CRAWFORD: And by that point you were mostly running the businesses from shore? 

BRIGGS: Yeah.

CRAWFORD: Still getting out on the water sometimes? 

BRIGGS: Every year I’d go and do a couple weeks Tuna fishing. Trolling.

CRAWFORD: Albacore Tuna? 

BRIGGS: Yeah. Anywhere between Karamea, down to as far as probably Haast.

CRAWFORD: When you were running the business though, you were still in direct contact with a lot of guys in the fleet?

BRIGGS: Oh, yeah. There was 40 boats, 32 boats within the company. 

CRAWFORD: You said that was for 26 years. What happened in 2007? 

BRIGGS: Our company was sold, and I didn’t want to go with the new buyer. I already had this boat down here, this pleasure boat. And I decided to go Crayfishing again. 

CRAWFORD: This boat - the [Spindrift]

BRIGGS: Yeah. So, I went Crayfishing again down here. I knew some people from home that had quota, so I leased the quota from them, and came back down here. And I’ve been down here for 9 years, 10 years now. But I go home every two or three weeks. I’m only down here about four months a year. That’s a good lifestyle. 

CRAWFORD: What is your season, now? 

BRIGGS: We work till about 12th of December. I have to take the boat home to survey. It usually sits here for two years, and then goes home for survey. And we go home for Christmas. The boat’s just basically left here. 

CRAWFORD: So, which months are you actually on the water Crayfishing? 

BRIGGS: Oh, every month. There’s no month off. 

CRAWFORD: You’re fishing year-round? 

BRIGGS: Yeah. But I’m not here all the time. Like, a week in May, a week in June.

CRAWFORD: Oh, I see. Sorry. 

BRIGGS: The quota system runs from the 1st of April to the 31st of March, each year. So, when you’ve caught your quota, you’re finished. And you can’t start again till the 1st of April. 

CRAWFORD: Price doesn’t factor into it? 

BRIGGS: Oh, it does. If the price is crap, you don’t come down. You just stay home. 

CRAWFORD: Has the market been strong lately? 

BRIGGS: It’s been down a bit. Quite surprising. It’s usually a lot higher at this time of year, because it’s Chinese New Year. But it’s just coming back up again now. 

CRAWFORD: Over the past seven years, would you have been here for most of the season? 

BRIGGS: I’m probably only here in total - if you added it up - four months a year. 

CRAWFORD: That’s what I was looking for. Am I missing anything else? Did you spend any significant time on the water doing boating, or water skiing, surfing, anything else? 

BRIGGS: No. I’m not interested in that. 

CRAWFORD: We’ve got a good idea of your experience in New Zealand coastal waters?

BRIGGS: Yeah.

Copyright © 2017 Damian Briggs and Steve Crawford