Volume 10

Early Days of Fishing in the Thames and the Hauraki Gulf

Earnest and Len Hill


My father, Ernest Hill, was born in Tararu in 1916, and grew up there. In the early 1930s he took an engineering apprenticeship at A & G Price, becoming a fitter and turner. In later years he trained as a draughtsman, and during World War 2, he was involved in designing the dies used for working with ceramics and plastics, which was considered important enough to be classed as a 'reserved occupation', which meant he was kept in NZ instead of being sent off to war.

Some time in 1980, my Dad decided to jot down some of his thoughts and experiences about commercial fishing, which he had been doing at least all my life, from 1950 until then. He had grown up in Tararu and had seen the fishing boats in Thames and seen the techniques changing over the years. In the 1950s he fished on the Manukau Harbour, and then moved north to Awanui in 1965. In typical, for him, fashion he wrote these notes on some small note paper that he no doubt found lying around the house, and eventually sent them to his sister Joyce in Tararu, who one day passed them on to The Treasury in Thames. In 2016, my Aunty Joyce decided to send the original notes back to me, copies having been made by The Treasury. (Incidentally, the originals were stolen out of my letter box, and were found and saved by a kind lady who found them scattered over the roadside in a pull-off area. She gathered them all up and put them back in my mailbox with a note) I decided to type out the notes to make them more accessible, which I eventually did, sending my version through to The Treasury. Unfortunately, the writing comes to a sudden halt as if there was supposed to be more. Whether there was other pages that got lost or he just didn’t get to finish, we’ll never know. What follows is a condensed version of his notes. The bold paragraphs are taken straight from his notes, unabridged. I have added some explanatory notes of my own in red, to try and clarify some points. The rest is my own condensed version of what he wrote, with my own comments added in places.

E.W. Hill (Maybe late 1930s or early 1940s?)

According to my Grandfather, he was always interested in the outdoor life, and wanted to be a farmer, but that was frowned upon in those days. Sometime in his life he decided to take up commercial fishing, which he did from before 1950, when I was born, to when he retired.

He obviously was always interested in the lives of the commercial fishermen he saw in Thames as a kid, and he committed a lot of those memories to paper in his later life, tying it in with his own experiences as a fisherman. For instance, he talks about the very early days of gill-netting in the Firth, and how the nets were just allowed to go dry on the outgoing tide, and were held in place by Manuka poles. The following quotes all come from my father, Ernest Hill's FISHING NOTES:

It was found by setting nets on tea tree poles that some fish got tangled. This method was the first way of catching on the Thames Firth shallow with 8 to 10ft rise and fall which means where the flats dry at low water, there was up to 10ft of high water on a spring tide at full or new moon. The early type of mullet boat carried bundles of these poles for holding nets, as the bottom was mainly soft mud. This was between 1900 and 1914 when petrol motors were very rare, and fish were so easy to catch, the Gulf at that time being full of snapper and flounder. Thames flounder were known throughout the North Island.

World War 2 caused some big improvements in engines, and allowed a movement away from the use of a dangerous fuel, pure Benzene, which is now banned. Another quote from Ernest's FISHING NOTES:

The war saw a big improvement in motors and some good marine engines were made in NZ. Twiggs in Auckland being best known.(Note: The company W.R. Twigg is still operating in NZ, now making and supplying marine parts and fittings) These were mostly 3 and 4 cylinder 30 – 40 HP, reckoning on 10HP per cylinder. Most Thames boats had 2 cylinder Union or Standard low-revving engines with low-tension ignition fired from a bank of dry-cell batteries to make 6 volts, and a dynamo ran off the open flywheel by friction. The fuel was a dangerous substance known as benzene. The 4 gallon tins were sealed, and covered with warning notes about naked flames and keeping away from lights, matches etc. (Note: Benzene is a highly dangerous fuel, no longer used. Modern petrol contains a maximum of 0.6% of Benzene by law)

A fisherman’s life back then was no picnic, with the typical launch being open to the elements, with no sleeping quarters, no stove, and an uncovered engine. The crew slept on the floor, covered by aprons or oil-skin coats if it was cold. As there was nowhere to carry ice, the trips were usually 1 day, but could be longer if no fish were caught. And of course, the general quality of the fish was poor in the hotter months, due to having no ice or refrigeration:

Unloading was never easy, and always done by man-power. Lighting was by kerosene lamps, so much work was done in the dark. Horse and cart was used for cartage, and everything taking twice as long as modern methods. How the fish ever arrived fit to eat was a miracle. Ice was plentiful and cheap, but not carried, as a rule. Poor quality fish, badly bruised and soft was acceptable, being unavoidable. Every boat carried a steel needle about 5/16 inch diameter and 18 inches long, used to bundle the snapper. This was threaded with some strong twine such as manila core from the seine rope, and the needle poked through the head of the snapper below the eye, making up a bundle of 10 or 12. Thrown from launch to wharf to truck to shed, didn’t improve the fish. Containers were practically unknown, except for the occasional basket which had found its way to Thames from the Auckland market, where such things first appeared.
Meals on these boats consisted of sandwiches with a tin billy boiled over an open fire-pot, a white-lead paint drum with holes punched around the base, standing on a couple of bricks, or maybe a Primus. Water came from a stone jar, or a benzene tin.
Under an unwritten law, all fishing stopped on Thursday afternoon. The nets were taken ashore by dinghy if it was a beach, or landed on the town wharf. Friday was pub day, or hanging up nets and mending. Saturday was for tanning and mending.
(Note: Nets back then were usually made of cotton twine, which required regular tanning for preservation. The most common method was by boiling the net in a large tub over an open fire, with tree bark. Manuka bark was the favoured one to use) Should the work get cleaned up in time, Sunday was the first day to fish, the pubs being closed. Football played a big part in everyone’s’ lives and a late Saturday night would cause all sorts of complications on Sunday.

In the 1930s a demand developed for bigger quantities of fresh fish, driven by the growing market in Auckland. This led to the adoption of Danish seining in the deeper waters of the Hauraki Gulf, and the construction of bigger and stronger more sea-worthy boats:

With improved motors and seagoing capacity, the Gulf still gave good returns, and with so much shelter between Kawau Island and Colville, it was like a holiday resort. They used to say, the fishermen only went home to wind the clock. The boats which the Dalmatians built were far stronger and more seaworthy than any small vessel seen in the Gulf before. Golden Gate, Cobra, Dalmatia, St. Vincent, St. George, were some of the names seen on the waterfront. Although many Thames boats fitted Seine gear, they were mostly too small. Haywards had one built for the job, and Harry Kirby converted two of his passenger boats which were slightly bigger.

Up until the late 1950s, the fishing nets used were usually made of cotton twine or linen, which required special care to preserve them. They had to be washed after use, and tanned frequently by boiling in a cauldron with Manuka bark, to stop them rotting. My father bought his first nylon net from Britain in 1957, which revolutionised net fishing. Suddenly, anybody with a dinghy and an afternoon to spare could go and set a net and catch fish. In his opinion, this was the start of the decreases in our fish stocks that we see now:

Synthetic nets and ropes could be as light as the strength of any fish, as it retained its original strength. So we had flounder nets as fine as cobweb as flats are not that powerful. After using heavy bottom nets, the nylon mullet nets were so much finer and the colour, instead of being heavy tanned until black, green or some bright colour. They were so efficient that we could not sell mullet, or the price dropped so low it was a waste of time catching. Of course, they murdered the fish and being lighter, and fine thread, more could be carried in the same amount of room. For the fisherman who had always hung his nets after washing them, nylon was so different that it took a few years to realise they would no longer rot if left in a heap. Impervious to acids and fish slime, and seaweed, all that was necessary was to take the fish out and straighten them for the next day.

Even back then, he and his fishing mates were recognising that there was a need to conserve our fish stocks, but they also knew that the decisions being made by Government were by people with no knowledge or experience in the field:

When we decided to cut down the mesh size, we were still well within the law as laid down by the powers that be, in Wellington. We could not know that a combination of extra efficiency, smaller mesh, and improved methods, would be a critical moment in the life of a beautiful fish. Just as accidents have always changed the course of nature, this moment was instrumental in changing the whole set-up of mullet fishing. Never again would there be so many fish to catch. The size would decrease from this point on. The local Fishing Inspector knew what was going to happen, as he had fished the area, and was familiar with the amount to be caught. Not only did the quantities go up with better gear, but the breeding fish were of course destroyed. It simply meant that the number of fish in the sea was the same or slightly less, but the number being caught was more.
The nets were specially made in Britain, and I still (at time of writing, 1980s) have one of the nets made in 1957. Apart from mending, no special care was needed, everything being synthetic. It soon became plain to us that mesh size should be increased as the fish size on the Manukau came down. This was a matter for the Marine Department. The amateur fisherman could now buy a material that would last forever, and the smaller the mesh, the more they caught.

Dad obviously spent a lot of time on the shallow harbour waters fishing for mullet and flounder, and took notice of the habits of these fish. He writes about the way flounder will hunt along the length of a net, looking for a way out. The fisherman countered this by tying pockets in the nets at regular intervals, using strips of flax. He also talks about how flounder will instinctively go towards any disturbance in the water to hide, and get caught in the net.

He also wrote a lot about the conservation of fish stocks, and the effects of modern fishing methods on fish species. He talks about extensive research he and others did in conjunction with the then Marine Department, regarding net mesh sizes, which showed a bigger mesh size caught a greater weight of fish, and a lot less undersize fish. He and his fellow fishermen voluntarily routinely used larger mesh size nets than required by law, as a self imposed method of conservation. However, new fishermen just starting would naturally use regulation size nets, trying to catch as much as possible.

Mullet catch on Manukau Harbour (Weymouth) in early 1950s. Note the size of the fish. Fishermen were then routinely using mesh sizes far larger than regulation, as a self-imposed method of conservation.

Dad started fishing for sharks in the 1960s in the Far North. Sharks initially were taken only for their livers, but later the whole carcass was used, as well as the liver:

The ease of catching school sharks led to thousands being slaughtered for their livers in the years after the war (World War 2), has given way to a demand for their flesh, and a complete reversal of the fishery. When the liver was used for vitamin supply the carcase was dumped. Every boat had a heap of old cream cans aboard (These cream cans were 40 to 50 litre containers previously used in the dairy industry to transport cream from farms to a factory by truck) and these were filled with liver taken from shark and anything else if they could get away with it. This was sent to a factory, usually when it had been carted about all over the country for 2 or 3 weeks. So 'high' were the contents now, that carriers would dodge it. This was processed to make vitamin pills. Eventually replaced by synthetic chemicals, the liver is now useless, and being dumped by fishermen, in spite of the fact that it consists of 90% high grade fish oil. (At time of writing, fish oil was not the fad it is now, so there was no demand) The big schools of shark were easily caught when they entered the harbours of the North in summer. In hot weather the females eggs developed, and the livers increased enormously, being fed by huge schools of parore and mullet in the shallow waters.

As the pressure on fish like snapper and flounder increased, my father tried to foster an interest in other species as a food, such as parore, without much success, reasoning that in Australia, the same fish is eaten readily. He also was aware of the effects of the decimation of the shark population on other species, seeing huge increases in parore schools as the sharks decreased:

Aussies are including horse and kangaroo meat in their exports. There’s no reason why we can’t use our stingray and kahawai. Some fish could be farmed very simply, that is the vegetable feeders. By diverting salt water into ponds, mullet will thrive simply by feeding on fresh plankton coming in without any addition. Young fish and spawn will circulate and eggs hatch naturally without any assistance especially in brackish areas, as many fish come into fresh water to breed. The mangrove flats in Awanui must be kept for future fish farms as no alteration would be necessary except pumps and stop banks with roading.
Squid would be OK, with mullet. The area at high water could be kept the same by pumping, and floodgates to retain all natural features, even the rise and fall of the tides through the trees. Fish in pens would fall back to natural channels in much the same way as now. Allowing the level to drop in the channels would accommodate drainage from mangrove flats. As the spawn from most fish travels about the upper flats of harbours, it will be found in most places that are tidal. Even if the need to cultivate fish is not yet urgent, it is vital to retain the natural areas where the new generations of fish are to be found. By keeping these breeding areas, the job will be half done. Destroy the mangrove flats, and the foundation of the fishing industry is gone.

Incidentally, I have seen mullet farms in Taiwan exactly as he envisaged, made on the tidal flats with stop banks and channels to the sea. These grow huge quantities of large grey mullet very successfully.

He also wrote a lot about the habits of various species of fish, and their preferred prey when feeding, obviously knowledge gained over many years of observations and experience. How snapper always have food of animal origin in their gut, so obviously feed on other fish and shellfish. But in later years, conservation of the fish stocks was his major concern. He talks about how probably thousands of baby sharks were being caught in flounder nets and killed, having who knows what effect on the fishery. How using piper and bait nets in the harbours, baby snapper, trevally and flounder are scooped up and destroyed. None of this is recorded in the official statistics. He was also concerned about how, as the average fish size decreased, the regulations were being changed to suit, resulting in ever smaller fish being caught:

Ernie Hill in centre, Fred Booker on right, maybe Cecil Ruth on left

We see the devastating effect of new and better gear used by pair-trawling, and if reports could be made public, the effect of this type of fishing would show a big gain over conventional trawling both in the Gulf and northern west coast. The complaints of longline fishermen that pair trawlers scoop up spawning fish, is obviously right. That’s what they’re trying to do, and they succeed very well. The longline fish are more selective and conservation-wise, a good method. Pair-trawling came into being because the new generation of fisherman had less fish to work on, and the technology was there to do it. If a method could be found to strain the water, fishermen would not hesitate to use it, destroying everything not wanted. Costs of recovery must be about the same per kilo, and all the returns and research done by the Fisheries Department will never lead to any increase of resources until someone produces true facts. Snapper have naturally fed on all young fish, being one of the few species to eat young flounder. These are facts easily established. Kahawai will eat flounder, or most things that swim. Trevally eat shellfish or shrimps and crabs, grinding them in their gullet, having a small mouth with no teeth. It could be mistake to consider only the fish we want, but I can show how depleting the fish we want is helping the unwanted species to take over. By feeding on almost everything in the sea, the big schools of snapper cleaned up many tons of live food a day. It is very difficult to think of anything in a snapper’s gut that was not animal in origin, and that means he has been living off his neighbours. For that matter, if hard pushed, he’ll eat anything from black beetles to tomatoes. Reducing the snapper population over big areas must be giving a new lease of life to many other residents mostly regarded as a nuisance to fishermen.

The fishermen of my father’s generation were genuinely concerned about preserving the fish stocks and the effect of overfishing “undesirable” species was having on the more desirable ones, and vice versa. They could easily see that everything in the sea was connected, and tried to fish accordingly. He saw a gradual decline in this attitude over the years, into the 1980s, but he passed away before he could witness the current change in attitude to conservation. At the time of his writing, any fish, no matter how small that was caught in a legal size net, was legal. Now the fish size is what matters. And now of course, there is much more research and information available to those making the regulations and decisions. He wrote a lot about the disconnect between the fishermen and the Government people making the laws and decisions, and how commercial interests were being favoured over conservation. Hopefully, we are now seeing a change in this approach and New Zealand’s fish stocks will be preserved as he hoped.


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