During the 1940s the New Zealand government began to apply a moderate amount of fisheries regulation. Growth was slow but the industry was stable, with fin fish selling mainly on the domestic market. Crayfish (rock lobster), caught from the rocky Kaikōura and Fiordland coasts, became increasingly important, and by 1963 accounted for close to 70% by value of fishing exports. Crayfish from the Chatham Islands became big business in the late 1960s.
When frozen lobster tails began to be shipped to the United States, many fishers realised that fishing was not solely a domestic business – it could be a lucrative export industry. The notion that fish could be exported was not new. What was new were reliable transport links and the high price paid for fish. These factors revolutionised the business of catching fish.
Until the mid-1960s about half a dozen species dominated New Zealand catches. These were snapper and tarakihi (about half of total landings), gurnard, trevally, blue cod, elephant fish, flounder and sole. The industry had survived by catching only about a sixth of the commercial fish varieties found close to shore. In the mid-1970s government export incentives boosted the industry, which invested in more and bigger boats. These targeted barracouta, kahawai, mackerel, pilchards, trevally, red cod, warehou, and squid. New technologies such as depth sounders, radar, sonar, and new fishing gear boosted the numbers of fish caught. But it was still essentially an inshore fishery.
Large foreign vessels that fished offshore had first arrived in the late 1950s. They were unpopular with local fishers, but they did alert them to the abundance of fish in deeper waters. At this time New Zealand’s territorial waters extended only 3 nautical miles offshore. This was extended to 12 nautical miles in 1970, but anything beyond this imaginary line was open to all comers.