Experience: Commercial Fisherman
Regions: Otago, Catlins, Fiordland
Interview Location: Palmerston, NZ
Interview Date: 02 February 2016
Post Date: 25 October 2017; Copyright © 2017 John Malcolm and Steve Crawford
1. EXPERIENCE IN AOTEAROA/NZ COASTAL ENVIRONMENTS
CRAWFORD: Where were you born John, and when?
MALCOLM: South Dunedin, 1931.
CRAWFORD: What was your first recollection of spending a significant amount of time on or around the water?
MALCOLM: Well, after I was born, we went down to Aramoana to live for four years. Dad worked at the quarry, and we used to spend a bit of time in the dinghy with Dad and other people setnetting and floundering.
CRAWFORD: That was at Aramoana?
MALCOLM: Yeah, on the way up from Aramoana. Just inside the Otago Harbour.
MALCOLM: Further down, yeah, down the flats.
CRAWFORD: Hold old were you roughly?
MALCOLM: I was only three or four, and I never forget the first time they threw a big octopus in. I just about jumped out the boat! [laughs]
CRAWFORD: Jumped out of the dinghy!
CRAWFORD: Your Dad was a fisherman?
MALCOLM: No, but his grandfather was.
CRAWFORD: So, when he had you out in the dinghy, he knew what he was doing on the water?
MALCOLM: Yeah, they all knew what they were doing.
CRAWFORD: And your family spent a fair amount of time on and around the water?
MALCOLM: Yeah, that was with Jim Kenton and Harry Lewis and people like that.
CRAWFORD: When you were a kid, did you spend a lot of time around the water, swimming, in dinghies, kind of exploring?
MALCOLM: I spent a lot of time with a handline, you know? I realized at a young age that I had some ability for catching fish with a line, and after school we used to go down the wharf, catch Red Cod. I’d get a few boxes from the National Mortgage, and we’d carry them over. I used to get five shillings a box of Red Cod. And one day, they started going pretty good. So, I brought the hand trolley over, and had 17 cases. I filled the whole 17 cases with Red Cod. People around me were not catching hardly any. They couldn’t understand how I could do it.
CRAWFORD: What do you think your trick was?
MALCOLM: Well, I don’t know. Some people have it and some don’t, that’s about all I can say. It’s the same with Blue Codding. When I was around the Sounds, wanting bait, I used to sell Blue Cod fillets to the [MS] Wanganella, swap it for diesel in food. The best day was 1300 and something pounds of Blue Cod fillets which is a mighty lot of Blue Cod. But I never had any trouble catching them. Same with Groper. I could set lines and catch them. Probably the best, he’s dead now, the chap I used to fish with. We’d set 47 lines one day, lifted 30, set another 17, we had 3,336 pounds of clean Groper for the day. Which is a mighty lot of Groper!
CRAWFORD: Yes, it is.
MALCOLM: Then we had some Blue Cod, Perch and other things as well.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Let's go back to your early days. When you said you went down to fish off the wharf, which wharf was it?
MALCOLM: it was George Street at Port Chalmers, where the big boats come into now.
CRAWFORD: You were fishing from a very early age then?
MALCOLM: Yes, yes.
CRAWFORD: Did you do any boating or swimming?
MALCOLM: I can’t swim [laughs].
CRAWFORD: Obviously then, you didn’t do much swimming.
MALCOLM: None at all.
CRAWFORD: At what point in time did you reach an age where you were allowed to go off in a dinghy without a parent or an adult?
MALCOLM: Probably about 14, but it was only a couple of times. I preferred to go out on the line boats, fishing with the men that did their living to catch fish.
CRAWFORD: How old were you when you went out with the line fishermen?
MALCOLM: I’d be about 12 or 13 when I started going out with them.
CRAWFORD: Were these day fishermen?
MALCOLM: Yes, yes.
CRAWFORD: What kind of region would they have fished?
MALCOLM: Just out around, up this area here.
CRAWFORD: Directly off the Otago Peninsula?
MALCOLM: Yeah, just all-day fishermen. Leave wherever we’re going, if we’re going down the coast, four hours, we’d leave four hours before daylight to arrive at daylight, then working back home.
CRAWFORD: And was this using handlines?
MALCOLM: All handlines, yes.
CRAWFORD: These fishermen, what were they targeting? What species?
MALCOLM: Blue Cod, and setlines for Groper.
CRAWFORD: A setline, is that a kind of longline or ...
MALCOLM: No, just one with about 12-15 hooks. It was anchored with an anchor, and then it streamed on the angle, and the hooks would fall down, and the Groper would come along and just gradually go up the line.
CRAWFORD: Groper and Blue Cod were primarily what they were after. Was it year-round, going out with them?
MALCOLM: Yes, whenever I could.
CRAWFORD: So, weekends, and during holidays, you’d be out with these guys?
MALCOLM: Yes. And then later on I started fishing for a living, full-time.
CRAWFORD: How old would you have been?
MALCOLM: About 17.
CRAWFORD: You left school to go fishing full-time?
MALCOLM: No, I went to a hardware place for a start. An importer getting everything in, and the travellers would take all the items to the hardware shops. But there wasn’t much future in that, so then I went to a post office for a while, but I wasn't getting interested in that. They wanted me to learn the history of the post office, and I thought "Gee whiz, I don’t want to learn all that rubbish." So, I left that, and then I went fishing full-time.
CRAWFORD: When you started fishing at the age of 17, did you start as a crew member on somebody else’s boat?
CRAWFORD: How big was the boat?
CRAWFORD: Do you remember who your first skipper was?
MALCOLM: Yes, it was old Hector Burke.
CRAWFORD: What was that vessel geared for?
MALCOLM: Just line fishing.
CRAWFORD: Was it the same type of thing - that it was a day operation, he was a day fisherman?
CRAWFORD: And when you fished with him, that would have been year-round?
CRAWFORD: Roughly how long did you stay with him?
MALCOLM: Stayed there a couple years, and then the fish got slack for a while. So, I went to MacIntosh Caley Phoenix Sugar Boiler in making fruitos, black balls, and all sorts of sweets. The pay wasn’t good there. So, I went to a box factory, and I used to work at swinging cross-cut, a planer, and different machines. So, I've sort of done all sorts of jobs over the years.
CRAWFORD: For that period of time with those jobs, were you off the water, pretty much?
MALCOLM: Well, I’d go out there every weekend to keep my hand in.
CRAWFORD: How long did you have those other jobs before you had your next fishing gig?
MALCOLM: Not very long, because when they started Cray fishing around the Sounds in the 50’s, I was in the beginning of that too.
CRAWFORD: You would have been 20ish?
CRAWFORD: And when you said the 'Sounds,' what do you mean?
MALCOLM: Around the west coast.
CRAWFORD: You fished pretty much all of Fiordland?
CRAWFORD: And that was a seasonal thing?
MALCOLM: Mainly, yes. It was a bit rugged in the winter. The fish sort of headed out then, and nasty weather, and not many big catches.
CRAWFORD: I’m trying to get an idea of whether there was a seasonality to the time that you were on the water. Was it mostly during spring-summer that you were fishing Fiordland?
MALCOLM: Yes, from about September till about April.
CRAWFORD: And when you were fishing Fiordland, what was the gear?
MALCOLM: That was those Crayfish pots. I've still got two out the backyard there.
CRAWFORD: How many years do you figure you ran that?
MALCOLM: I suppose off and on, 35 years Crayfishing, all together. Off and on.
CRAWFORD: From the time you started in Fiordland, what size of vessel were you fishing off then?
MALCOLM: 52 feet long.
CRAWFORD: It was strictly a Crayfish operation?
MALCOLM: Yes. It had 6.5 tonne freezer. We used to tail all the crayfish, just bring the tails home.
CRAWFORD: In the off season, would you come back to the Otago Peninsula?
MALCOLM: Yes. Get a job now and then on a local boat, either trawling up and down here mainly. Or sometimes we’d come farther down this way, trying to catch Groper with setlines.
MALCOLM: Yeah, yeah. Spent a lot of time up and down to the Nuggets trawling.
CRAWFORD: Ok, that pattern of Crayfishing Fiordland, then coming back, day fishing out of Otago Peninsula, fishing out of Port Chalmers. How long did that pattern run for?
MALCOLM: Oh, that went on for quite a few years. And then, when I put a deposit and bought my own boat, I just spent most of the time up and down here then, trawling or lining. But then one year we went around to Dusky Sound for a whole year.
CRAWFORD: Do you remember roughly when you bought your boat?
MALCOLM: Yes, about 1968.
CRAWFORD: How big was the vessel?
MALCOLM: That was 40 feet.
CRAWFORD: What was the name?
CRAWFORD: What kind of gear did you have on it?
MALCOLM: Everything. Handlines, setlines, longlines, trawling, Crayfishing, shark nets. It had everything.
CRAWFORD: When you say shark nets, was this or School Shark or Rig?
MALCOLM: No, that was for the [Dunedin City] Council, off the beaches for the swimmers.
CRAWFORD: Ok. Did you do any setnetting of your own?
MALCOLM: No, no.
CRAWFORD: Was it at that point you got your skipper's ticket?
MALCOLM: I had the skippers ticket before then.
CRAWFORD: It was late 1960s when you bought your vessel?
MALCOLM: Yes, yes. About '68 I bought it.
CRAWFORD: How long between 1968, when you purchased the vessel, to your first contract with DCC?
MALCOLM: It was 1971.
CRAWFORD: That was kind of a transitional period? Mostly fishing out of Port Chalmers? But you did spend an entire year over at Dusky?
MALCOLM: Yes, that’s right.
CRAWFORD: And that was specifically Crayfishing at Dusky. Did things not work out how you wanted them, and then you came home? Or what?
MALCOLM: No, I had an accident and broke three ribs. So, I had to come home.
CRAWFORD: Ok. When you got home, how was it that you came to work on that contract for DCC? Did they approach you?
MALCOLM: There was an ad in the newspaper. I was interested in trying to do the job, so I went in and was interviewed and Lawrence Waters went in, we thought we’d try it with his boat first. He did it for a few months, then he gave it up. He didn’t like it. I took over and did it for 11 years.
CRAWFORD: That was a consecutive 11 years?
CRAWFORD: You were fishing out of Port Chalmers. Was there a seasonality to when those shark nets were fished?
MALCOLM: Yes. They went down about the beginning of December, till March in those days.
CRAWFORD: When you were tending those nets - weather-dependent - you got to the nets … did you lift them on every occasion that you tended?
MALCOLM: Not completely, because if there’s a shark, the floats would be down. So I knew there was a shark, so I could pull that net in. But we never got a fair go. The surfies, and the divers would go out, and if there was a dead shark, they’d take the teeth out, then they’d cut along the line, let the shark fall out of net. They did a lot of damage.
CRAWFORD: How did you know that the surfies and the divers ...
MALCOLM: Oh, that was quite easy. Sharks can’t run a row, a neat line right along a row. And when they bite, it’s a jagged whole. I was in the lawyer's office one day, and this lady had a great big shark's tooth. And I said "I bet that cost a lot." And she said, "No, my boyfriend helps the man that does the nets." So, I told the Council boss. Then I was in another office a couple of months later. Another lady has a big one. And she said that her boyfriend is a surfie, and he gets the teeth washed up on the beach. Well I ask you - you’d stand there a thousand years! But when you get a hole, 20 or 30 feet long, that’s neat all along a row of knots, there’s no fish can do that.
CRAWFORD: Right. You tended these nets on a daily or nearly daily basis?
MALCOLM: Three times a week.
CRAWFORD: And you could pretty well size up by the floats, whether or not you had a shark. Were you doing other fishing in addition to tending to the shark nets?
MALCOLM: Yes, I had a few Crayfish pots set up the coast, and on the way home I could supplement the income a bit. There wasn’t enough for a year's wages tending the nets only.
CRAWFORD: Any other types of fishing that you would be doing in addition to the DCC nets?
MALCOLM: Well, I could set some lines and catch a few Groper here and there, and a few Crayfish pots. But you’d never make a fortune out of it.
CRAWFORD: When you were fishing the DCC nets and supplemental fishing, was it all Otago Peninsula south, or were you up north at all?
MALCOLM: Yes, I brought the nets right down to Brighton.
CRAWFORD: I mean, were you fishing north of the peninsula at all during those years?
MALCOLM: No, no. Not when I was doing the nets, because my time was from down to Brighton and back - that was a three-hour trip. So, you couldn’t go everywhere.
CRAWFORD: Ok. That was starting 1971, and it ran for 11 years. Did the contract change much over the 11 years?
MALCOLM: Oh, it went up a wee bit. But you couldn’t make a living out of it, because you’ve got boat insurance, and everything that you’ve got to pay for.
CRAWFORD: There was a total of four shark nets that you fished?
CRAWFORD: Was that pretty much consistent through the 11 years?
MALCOLM: Yes, yes.
CRAWFORD: 1971 to 1982. In your last year, was there any particular reason why you ended the contract?
MALCOLM: I used to be fit run everywhere. Jumped off the wharf, this day, play Tarzan, sliding down the stay, done it a thousand times. Rough morning, the boat like this, twisted the ankle right over and knocked a bit of bone off. And I was either on my knees or my back side when that bone got in the joint. It just rounded me up. And it wasn’t safe to go to sea. I tried for two years, but too dangerous.
CRAWFORD: That was a significant reduction in the amount of fishing that you did year-round, starting 1983. Were you still out doing some day fishing after that?
MALCOLM: Yeah, I did a wee bit. But I had to pick the weather, because if it got rough, you've got to have good sea legs on a boat. If you don’t, you’re doomed. Instead of going this way, that way, if you go that way once - you're over. It's worse if your boat's doing eight miles an hour, and you’re a non-swimmer, so ...
CRAWFORD: With you being around the water, I would have figured that swimming would be a natural thing.
MALCOLM: No. I’ll give you an idea. I took my wife over to Milford Sound mid-winter. Ice around the wharfs, snow everywhere. It hurt me to pay to go down the Sound on the boat, because I’ve done it hundreds of times on the fishing boat for nothing. So, I gave in and I went with her. When we got out, at the entrance, he put down a gear and he used to take the temperature every day. And he said "I always ask people if they could guess the temperature." So, I said 51.5 degrees, and I got it just a miniscule out. And he said "How did you get it so close? People don’t get it like that." Well, the Tasman Stream brings warm water from Ozzie. And I know of Dunedin, in the summers it's only 47 degrees - it's always colder here in the summer, than it is there in the winter. "Oh" he says "Well there’s a chap knows what he’s talking about." And sharks are not supposed to eat people under that temperature, but you show me a hungry shark, and I don’t care what the temperature is! [laughs]
CRAWFORD: Alright. Getting back to you not swimming, how come when you were a kid, your folks didn’t make sure you knew how to swim or anything like that?
MALCOLM: Well, we used to have a big engraving dock at Port Chalmers, where the boats would get scrubbed and painted. And the class would go down a couple of times a month and they’d leave about this much water. But I’m one of those that I hyperventilate in the water. And my boss with the shark nets was a superintendent at Moana Pool. He took me into the learner's pool, and I just about konked out, I went all peculiar, I couldn’t sit or anything. He said, "I’ve never had a drowning, and you’re coming back here again." [laughs]
CRAWFORD: You’re not going to be the first!
MALCOLM: No. But out at sea, with the temperatures like that, if you fell over the side, you haven’t got long before you’re going to drown with hypothermia. And my view was, get it over with. Why try to swim for an hour, and then go down!
CRAWFORD: You had the injury, and you were reduced in your fishing. You did a little bit of day fishing out of Port Chalmers again when the weather was fine - that was 1983?
CRAWFORD: When was the final part of your fishing career?
MALCOLM: Well, it would be possibly '84. But I had the odd day out with Graeme Fraser, some of the boys. Just to keep the fingers in.
CRAWFORD: You’d go out to Taieri Mouth where he was?
MALCOLM: Yeah, have a day out.
CRAWFORD: Did you ever spend any other activity, any region, any significant amount of time on the water after that?
MALCOLM: No, no.
CRAWFORD: When you gave up the DCC contract, I believe there were two other contractors, including Graeme Fraser. Anything you recall about their activities? Was it pretty much an extension, the same kind of contract. Or did they change the contract at all?
MALCOLM: Yeah, they changed. They used different nets. I used to make all the nets for that job with … I think it was a 9-inch square. Because the head ... see, sharks swim in lazy circles, and a fin would go through a mesh, then they’d roll. And believe it or not, every shark I ever caught was on the inside of the net. The beach side, not the outside.
Copyright © 2017 John Malcolm and Steve Crawford