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Fishing industry

by  Carl Walrond

Fishing in New Zealand had small-scale beginnings. But nets and lines cast from handmade boats were replaced by large, mechanised ships, and fishing became an important export industry. The industry must strike a balance between commercial success and ecological interests – there are not always plenty of fish in the sea.

A cottage industry

Early attitudes to fish

In New Zealand, Māori were the first fishers – they depended largely on fish and shellfish for protein. When European sailors brought over pigs in the late 1700s, there was suddenly a ready supply of meat on land. Sheep and cattle followed in the 1800s. European settlers saw little need to fish when there was so much food on the land.

Many British migrants were reluctant to eat fish because they considered it fit only for poor people. They were also unfamiliar with New Zealand’s fish species. They named many of the fish they found after what they knew – cod, mullet and herring. Although the sea around their new homeland teemed with fresh seafood, the British imported cured, salted and canned fish from home.

Small-scale fishing

Until the Second World War the New Zealand fishery was characterised by little fleets of small vessels. Boats were owner-operated, and they sailed from a number of ports supplying local markets. Exports were minor. The Wellington experience is typical of the early fishing scene in New Zealand. In the mid to late 1800s Shetlanders, Italians, English and French fetched up on Wellington’s shores and soon realised what Māori had long known – Cook Strait abounded with blue cod, snapper, groper, warehou and crayfish. Fishing settlements sprang up, creating distinct communities at Paremata, Makara, Island Bay and Eastbourne.

In the South Island, small craft worked inshore fisheries such as Otago Harbour, which served the growing city of Dunedin. Small-scale family operations dominated the fishing scene for decades. Prior to refrigeration, fish-curing sheds and smokehouses were built at small ports around the coast.

Oysters were an early boom-and-bust fishery. Both rock and dredge varieties were exported in their millions over the 1880s, but by the 1890s beds were stripped and the fishery collapsed.

Selling fish

In the early days, fish had to be distributed quickly, before it spoiled. Fish hawkers would take fish into towns on horse-drawn carts, calling out their wares and selling it door to door. Once ice could be made, fish was displayed in shop windows. One fishmonger had a penchant for gimmicks. At Hurcomb’s in Cuba Street, Wellington, a penguin was stationed at the door and fed fish, which would disappear in one neat gulp.


Although fish-curing and canning plants had been trialled, the fishing industry remained small until the advent of refrigeration. Refrigerated shipping allowed the first consignment of frozen fish to be exported – some 16 tonnes were sent to Sydney in 1890. With refrigeration came ice making, and fishmongers displayed the catch of the day on beds of ice in their shop windows.

On shore, fish could be kept frozen in isolated places far from markets. Freezers appeared at localities as remote as Port Pegasus in southern Stewart Island. However, refrigerated space was often limited, and there was nowhere to store over-supplies. Irregular shipping services and poor roads made it difficult to transport seafood to markets. Once rail services were established, fish could be transported quickly and easily. This proved important for port towns such as Ōamaru, which sent its fish to Christchurch and Dunedin. From Napier, wagons of fish trundled down the line to Wellington.

However, it took time for refrigeration to become established. Only in the 1930s did refrigerated space became widely available, allowing a small export industry to develop. In addition, different fish species needed different cool or freezing conditions to maintain their quality, and it took time for this knowledge to develop.

Fishing methods and boats

Netting and hand lining

New Zealand fishing in the late 1880s usually involved setting nets in harbours and estuaries. Trawling (dragging a net along the sea floor) was introduced in 1900, and Danish seining (encircling schooling fish with a net) in 1923. But even with these innovations the commercial fishing scene in the early 20th century was dominated by small-scale line and set-net fishing.


Many fishing boats were built by the fishers themselves. Shetlanders such as Fraser and Moat in Wellington built distinctive boats based on their island craft – sharp at both ends with bow and stern curving upward. Small wooden boats powered by oars and sails were rarely taken into the open sea. In Otago Harbour, fishermen did not fish beyond the heads until the advent of small, mainly single-cylinder engines in the early 1900s. The principal make was the Frisco Standard, and these engines were powered by benzene sold in cases with brand names such as Plume and Big Tree.

Vessels were small, lacked radios, had low-powered and often unreliable engines, and poor life-saving equipment. Fishing was a dangerous business and unlucky fishermen lost their lives. Many others had close shaves when sudden gales blew up and they had to hastily retreat to shore.


Fishermen needed to be strong – before the widespread introduction of winches in the late 1920s and early 1930s nets, supplejack cray pots and lines all had to be hauled in by hand. In places such as Kaikōura the fishermen were used to sore hands and bad backs.


In the 1920s and 1930s coastal trawling out of Lyttelton was conducted by 15–18-metre wooden vessels powered by small engines and crewed by two men. They targeted species such as tarakihi, flounder and sole, but much of the by-catch (untargeted species) was dumped as it could not be sold – consumers were very fussy about which fish species they would eat. Vessels mainly fished close to shore and out to the continental shelf, but would rarely trawl deeper than 90–130 metres.

Laws and licences

Many fishers were part-timers and there were few government controls or regulations. It was a small, domestic industry with no sustained exports of any great value. Various regulations such as the ability to close fisheries and restrict net-mesh sizes had existed since the Fish Protection Act 1877, and these were pulled together under the Fisheries Act 1908. Entry into fishing was not stringently controlled until the late 1930s, when fishing became licensed and the number of vessels was restricted.

‘Dog barking navigation’

Skippers of early fishing vessels made do with compasses, charts (often inaccurate), sounding lines, and their knowledge of the sea. When fog came down on the coastal trawler Dolphin off the Canterbury coast in the 1920s, getting to shore meant listening for barking sheepdogs:

‘We were fortunate to catch a glimpse of Pompeys’s Pillar off the peninsula and carried on by what we called "dog barking navigation" right around the peninsula … Next morning we heard that the coastal steamer Gale had hit the outlying rock off Akaroa South Head and that The Breeze had hit the shore in Pegasus Bay’. 1


To protect moored fishing boats from storms, breakwaters were built in areas where there was no natural port. In many other locales boats were ramped up onto beaches and hauled up on custom-built slipways, or they were kept in boathouses. Wharves were built to help land the catches and to deal with other supplies.

The sea water around New Zealand is cold and fishermen lost overboard do not last long before hypothermia kills them. Many fishermen have died in this way. The social cost of fishing has been high – many children have lost their fathers, and wives and mothers have waited at home worrying while their husbands and sons ride out the storms.


Navigational aids were rudimentary at first. The position of a boat at sea was determined by lining it up with known landmarks. Later, in places such as Kaikōura, white diamond-shaped markers were built on wooden poles on hills to guide boats into the harbour. When electricity became available these were replaced with lead lights. Lighthouses were built around the coast to help keep fishing boats off the rocks.

  1. G. Brasell, Boats and blokes. Wellington: Daphne Brasell, 1991, p. 52. › Back

Inshore boom


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.

Inshore growth

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.

Inshore fisheries overexploited

Export boom

Licensing of fishing boats was discontinued in New Zealand in 1963, along with some other regulations, and this opened up the fishery to new participants. However, many restrictions on fishing methods and fish size remained in force.

The tip of the iceberg?

In the late 1960s the fishing industry turned its attention to open-water schooling fish such as kahawai. A spotter plane surveying these fish off the Nelson coast had a surprising finding:

‘A geological survey explosion by an oil company was observed on 1.4.69. Prior to the explosion two shoals of “kahawai” were noted in the area; after the explosion a further 14 shoals came up to the surface …This incident gave rise to an important question: How much of the total fish population do the surface fish shoals represent?’ 1

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s there was increasing growth in exports dominated by shellfish and crayfish. Fishing companies such as Sanford in Auckland, Sealord Products in Nelson, and Watties in Gisborne became major players in the industry. Bigger steel boats replaced smaller, traditional wooden vessels, and onshore fish-processing plants were built. During the late 1970s the industry boomed, with rapid growth in fin-fish catches. Fish exports were only 14,000 tonnes in 1975; six years later, 129,000 tonnes were being exported. The exponential growth in the total catch could not be sustained, however, and it crashed in the 1980s.

Coastal fisheries had become fully exploited and too many boats were chasing too few fish. In 1983 it was estimated that a reduction of 294 vessels was required to balance the numbers of inshore fish available with the number of vessels fishing for them. The government intervened. From 1978 no new fishing licences for crayfish and scallops were issued, and from 1980 a moratorium was placed on permits for fin fish.

Towards radical change

As this crisis developed in the coastal fisheries, two developments opened up a way forward:

  • the move into deep-sea fisheries
  • the establishment of a quota management system.

These two changes would transform the fishing industry over the next 20 years.

  1. B. F. Webb, ‘Survey of pelagic fish in the Nelson area, 1968–69.’ Fisheries Technical Report 69. Wellington: New Zealand Marine Department, 1971, p. 13. › Back

Deep-water fisheries

The fourth-largest fishing zone in the world

In 1978 New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was established as a 200-nautical-mile radius around the country. Since the 1960s the deep-water areas off New Zealand had been exploited by foreign vessels such as Russian, Taiwanese, South Korean and Japanese trawlers. Internationally, as in New Zealand, the introduction of these zones was driven by countries wanting to protect their fish stocks from foreign fishing vessels and manage them themselves.

Because its territory included the Chatham Islands and other outlying islands, New Zealand’s area was the fourth-largest fishing zone in the world (4 million square kilometres). New Zealand gained a huge potential resource. Due to the large catches made by foreign trawlers in those waters, hopes were high. With inshore fisheries over-exploited, it seemed obvious to search the depths for new species.

In the northern hemisphere the collapse of the cod and other fisheries left trawlers lying idle. New Zealand companies were able to purchase them at bargain prices and refit them, or they took long-term leases on modern trawlers. The collapse of the northern hemisphere fisheries also created a gap in the international market for high-quality white-fleshed fish. New Zealand orange roughy and hoki fitted the bill.

A rough life

In the 1980s, when the orange roughy fishery was established, scientists knew little about the species. A decade later they had a better idea of its life history:

‘A typical orange roughy is probably at least 50–60 years old and has probably been dodging sharks, sperm whales and giant squids since it began life as a 2 mm egg drifting near the sea surface … Spawning is now interrupted by large factory trawlers; tens of thousands of individuals are headed and gutted’. 1

Orange roughy

Orange roughy lives in very cold, deep water, where there is no light. Fished from 600–1,500 metres beneath the surface, it is the deepest commercial fishery in the world. This remarkable fish has a life expectancy of up to 150 years. Its longevity and slow rate of breeding means that only small numbers can be harvested without affecting the size of the population. This was not known in the 1980s, and orange roughy seemed to be a boundless resource. On one occasion 54 tonnes were caught in only 20 minutes’ trawling – but this apparent abundance was an illusion, as the fish had been concentrated in spawning schools.

Big catches were taken in the 1980s, but the boom years could not, and did not, last. The harvest peaked in 1989 at 54,000 tonnes, and has been in decline ever since. Popular in North American restaurants in the 1980s, by the 2000s orange roughy was scarce in New Zealand and commercial quotas were only a fraction of those in the 1980s. Partly this was due to the stocks being fished down for too long when populations were overestimated. Current harvest levels may be about right, or may still be too high, or may even increase slightly once over-fished stocks are re-established.


Hoki grow to about 1.3 metres long and are thin and tapering. They had been caught as early as the 1930s by coastal trawlers, but were not valued because they did not keep well. It was not until the late 1970s that Japanese trawlers off the South Island’s West Coast took hoki in large quantities. As boats moved into deep waters they found new hoki stocks, and the fishery boomed in the 1990s, accounting for much of the growth in New Zealand’s total catch. By the early 2000s hoki were being caught throughout the year rather than just at spawning time (when the condition of their flesh is not at an optimum – good-quality flesh earns more export dollars). By 2001, hoki was earning $346 million in export revenue – the single most valuable commercial species.

Hoki was the first large fin-fish fishery in the world to achieve certification by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable managed fishery. In 2005 this certification was under review.

Other deep-water species

Although orange roughy and hoki dominated the catch figures, other deep-water species were commercially important, including southern blue whiting, oreo dories, squid and ling.


Deep-water trawling is highly mechanised. Only big companies can afford the massive capital investment required in modern factory-trawlers. These factory ships process everything caught on board – even guts and heads are processed into fishmeal, which is so valuable it is known as ‘brown gold’.

Because of the size of the investment, New Zealand companies embarked on joint ventures. Other nations’ trawling crews taught New Zealanders how to fish the deep waters and in return got a portion of the catch. Increasingly over the 1980s and 1990s, New Zealand companies bought their own vessels and began to fish the deep. They also chartered or leased foreign vessels. This practice caused some controversy in the early 2000s, with accusations that foreign crews were being underpaid. However, owners countered by saying they struggled to retain experienced crews, and foreign deckhands had to be brought in.

  1. D. A. Robertson, ‘The New Zealand orange roughy fishery: an overview.’ In Issues and opportunities: proceedings of the Australian and New Zealand southern trawl fisheries conference, Melbourne, 6–9 May 1990, edited by K. Abel and others. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Office, 1991, p. 38. › Back

The Quota Management System

A new system

By the early 1980s, with dwindling inshore stocks and too many boats, the New Zealand fishing industry and the government realised that a new fisheries management system was needed. Measures such as moratoriums and controlled fisheries failed to work. The common warning that ‘too many boats are chasing too few fish’ was rephrased by one fisherman as, ‘too many boats chasing no fish’.

Radical thinking emerged. For decades fishing had been dominated by the belief that the sea teemed with fish, and that stocks could not be affected by fishing. As catches dropped alarmingly such views were abandoned. Fisheries management began to adopt a revolutionary approach – instead of controlling fishing methods and the number of boats the goal became limiting how many fish were caught.

In October 1986, after two years of consultation and planning, the Quota Management System was introduced, with widespread industry support. When fishers became aware that a quota system was to be introduced, they increased their activity – quotas (how much fish a person or company is allowed to catch) were allocated on the basis of catch history.

How the quota system works

Previously the fish in the sea could be caught by anyone who had a licence and complied with other regulations. Under the quota system a sustainable total catch or harvest of fish was set. Individuals or companies were allocated the right to catch certain quantities of particular species. Quotas became like other forms of property – they could be leased, bought, sold or transferred. While there has been much tinkering with the system, its basis remains the same.

Each year scientists and the industry together assess the population of all major fish species. Set quotas (in kilograms) are allocated annually to individuals or companies. In theory no one is allowed to catch more than their quota, and all the quotas add up to the total allowable catch. In practice, as fishers cannot control how much their nets scoop up, they can actually catch more than their quota – but this has to be paid for.

In some fisheries non-commercial use is significant (for example, by Māori harvesters and recreational anglers) and this is taken into account before the total allowable catch is set.

Species under the system

Since 1986 the Ministry of Fisheries has steadily been bringing all commercial species under the management of the quota system. In 2005 there were some 93 species (or groups of similar species) managed under the system. Species were further split into about 550 distinct stocks based on where they occur.

Who owns quota?

Only New Zealanders or New Zealand-owned companies can own fishing quota in New Zealand. Foreign ownership of shares in New Zealand quota-owning companies is strictly limited. However quota holders can lease foreign vessels to catch their allowance on their behalf.

Small quota owners (especially in inshore fisheries) often sold their quotas to bigger companies in the 1990s. In the 2000s the industry was led by Sealord Fisheries, Sanford, and Talleys.

Māori commercial fisheries settlement

The biggest change since the quota system was introduced in 1986 has been the emergence of Māori as a major industry player. This occurred when the Crown settled Māori commercial fishing claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1989 an interim agreement was reached, and the Crown transferred 10% of the quota (some 60,000 tonnes) together with shareholdings in fishing companies and $50 million in cash to the Waitangi Fisheries Commission. This commission was responsible for holding the fisheries assets on behalf of Māori until an agreement was reached as to how the assets were to be shared among tribes.

In 1992, a second part of the deal, referred to as the Sealord deal, marked full and final settlement of Māori commercial fishing claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. This included 50% of Sealord Fisheries and 20% of all new species brought under the quota system, more shares in fishing companies, and $18 million in cash.

In 2003, agreement was reached as to how the assets would be shared. Over 90% of tribes agreed with a proposal that held 50% of assets centrally and allocated the rest directly to tribes based on coastline length and tribal populations.

In 2004 a governance body, Te Ohu Kaimoana, was set up to oversee all Māori commercial fishing settlement assets. Since 1992 the value of these assets had tripled in value, to around $750 million in 2004. About $350 million, representing around a third of New Zealand’s commercial fishing industry, was to be administered under a company called Aotearoa Fisheries.

The quota system – an evaluation

New Zealand’s Quota Management System has been viewed internationally as successful. This is particularly in comparison with many of the world’s fisheries where there is still an open-season approach (whereby regulations are placed on fishing days and equipment, rather than on limiting the total catch). Although some fish stocks have been over-exploited, New Zealand has (so far) largely avoided the significant stock collapses that have occurred in fisheries overseas. In the early 2000s the Ministry of Fisheries had records on the status of 60–70% of stocks. Of these, about 80% were at or near target levels for sustainable harvest, and the total allowable catch for some fish had even increased.

Fishing down

The remaining 20% of fish species are in decline or remained depleted. This does not necessarily mean that these fisheries are collapsing – a stock is often ‘fished down’ to a level that produces the maximum sustainable yield. A stock of fish that has never been harvested is dominated by older, larger fish. When a stock is first fished, the removal of the large fish allows more food for younger fish, and as they grow faster, the total biomass (weight) of the harvestable stock increases. This process is termed ‘fishing down’ as the stock is reduced to a level that allows the maximum weight of fish to be harvested while still retaining enough individuals to allow a similar level of harvest in future years. ‘Fishing down’ alters the population structure from one which is old and slow-growing to one dominated by young, fast-growing individuals.

Despite the relative success of the quota system, difficult issues remain.

How many fish should be caught?

Setting quotas for individual species is problematic. To determine how many fish can be taken from a population, scientists have to estimate how many fish there are and how quickly they reproduce. They then attempt to determine the maximum sustainable yield, which is an estimate of how many individual fish can be removed from a population without the stock going into an ongoing decline. If numbers fall too low, then quotas are immediately cut.

Populations and quotas are determined using various methods, such as research surveys, catch monitoring, ships’ logs, landed catches and computer modelling. However, these calculations are not always reliable, as declines in some oreo and orange roughy stocks have proven. This is particularly true with deep-sea stocks. Little is known about some species, and their populations can be overestimated.


In 2004 the New Zealand fishing industry employed some 26,000 people and was worth a billion dollars in export revenue. With so many jobs and investments at stake, fisheries management, including the quota system, can be political, and major disagreements are often only settled in court.

The fishery in the 2000s

Total catch

The total allowable catch in New Zealand waters in 2000 was 672,000 tonnes. Although the quota system was working well, attention focused on those 20% of fish species that were in decline. The Ministry of Fisheries had recovery plans for depleted stocks, but had a difficult task in enforcing its rules, especially in inshore fisheries.

Inshore stocks

Inshore species with commercial importance include crayfish (rock lobster), pāua (abalone), green-lipped mussels and snapper.

Snapper numbers off the North Island's west coast have dwindled. As little as 2% of snapper are older than 10 years, compared with 25%, 20 years ago. The total allowable catch has been reduced to allow stocks to recover. Rig shark or lemonfish (often cooked in batter in fish and chips) is also in decline.

Although there is a successful commercial pāua fishery, the coast is being stripped of pāua and crayfish by poachers who operate in international organised crime. In 2004 it was estimated that the amount of pāua taken illegally almost matched the legal harvest – nearly 1,000 tonnes a year. There is also increasing pressure from recreational fishers who compete with inshore commercial fishers for species such as kahawai and snapper.

Inshore operators

Inshore owner–operator fishermen with small boats are becoming uncommon. The high cost of fuel and equipment, and declining quota allocations along with increased government regulations and levies have squeezed out many. In the past, in many coastal communities fishing was a way of life; however, by the 2000s it was primarily a business, and many small operators could no longer compete with the larger fishing companies.

Deep-water stocks

Of about 130 species fished in New Zealand waters only 43 are commercially important. The gross tonnage and export revenue are most significant for deep-water fish, taken from depths of 200 to 1,200 metres – hoki, hake, orange roughy, ling, oreo dories, squid and silver warehou.

Some, but not all, orange roughy stocks collapsed in the 1990s, and these have been closed to allow their renewal. Other deep-water stocks thought to be in jeopardy include hake (often caught with hoki) and oreo dory.


In 2004, hoki numbers dropped and quota was cut from about 180,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes. In the eastern spawning grounds (Cook Strait and the Chatham Rise), the hoki population seemed to be steady. But in the western spawning grounds (off the West Coast of the South Island) the population was estimated to be only 13–22% of the original number. Stock levels around 20% of the original population are considered to be insufficient for sustainable fishing.

The fishing industry and scientists were undecided as to what caused the decline. Hoki numbers may vary considerably depending on how many young fish are coming through. However, conservationists blamed falling hoki numbers on overfishing and damage caused by trawlers dragging their heavy nets along the ocean floor.

Although attention is often focused on those species under threat by fishing, many species are being managed sustainably under the quota system.

Ecological issues

Another major challenge facing the industry is to reduce the impact on untargeted species. Efforts have been made to reduce by-catch by using exclusion devices on squid-fishing nets to prevent sea lions from getting caught. There are methods to discourage albatrosses and other seabirds from taking longline hooks. And technology has allowed more accurate targeting of fish schools to ensure that fewer non-commercial fish varieties are caught in nets.

Fisheries managers still do not have enough information to know if trawling affects the ecosystems of seamounts. The Fisheries Act takes a precautionary approach; for instance 19 seamounts were closed to bottom trawling in 2000; and in 2006 a draft agreement was reached to close another 30% of the Exclusive Economic Zone to bottom trawling.

Quick growth

The New Zealand fishing industry has grown rapidly to become a major contributor to the nation’s economy. The major challenges faced by the industry are to ensure their contribution is sustainable and their impact on the marine environment is minimal. In 2005 the industry had probably reached its maximum level of harvest. It can only grow through finding new species to catch, or through aquaculture (fish farming). Increasing the value derived from the current level of harvest became a main focus of the fishing industry in the 1990s, and is likely to remain so into the future.

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How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Fishing industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 12 June 2006