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.