In 2013 only 0.4% of the Southland labour force (170 people) worked in fishing – a drop from the mid-1990s, when 477 people worked in the industry.
SouthFish, an association of five Southland-based businesses, leased inshore fishing quota to Southland fishers.
From east to west around the coast, fishing fleets have been based at Waikawa, Fortrose, Bluff, Riverton/Aparima, and more recently, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.
These settlements are a strong element in the region’s identity. Apart from the sounds, they date back to the earliest days of European arrival – Waikawa, Bluff and Riverton (originally known as Jacobs River) began as whaling stations. Before that, each was a favoured spot for Māori settlement because of the ready access to productive fishing.
Initially most fishing was for subsistence, but Māori began bartering fish with settlers. By the 1850s, domestic fishing fleets (mostly rowing and sailing dories, using hand-lines and nets) were catching red and blue cod, groper, ling, shark and flat-fish.
Seine-netting came later, and Foveaux Strait oysters were first dredged in the 1860s. Because of isolation, limited transport and equipment, the differing species and the fact that fish are perishable, each community had its own fishery.
Blue cod and other fish
Southland takes over half of New Zealand’s blue cod catch. This fishery developed in the 1920s when New Zealanders and Australians acquired a taste for its sweet, firm, white flesh.
Through the 1920s and 1930s regular exports of southern blue cod were sent from Bluff to Melbourne, where it sold at a premium. Exports reached $2 million in the late 1990s, but fell to less than half a million dollars in the 2000s.
The blue cod fishery is mostly inshore. Larger northern-based and overseas fishing vessels catch tuna, hoki, dory, squid, monkfish and hake in large numbers, particularly off the coast of Fiordland.
The output of the renowned ‘Bluff oyster’ fishery in Foveaux Strait used to be sold entirely within New Zealand (exports were banned until October 1998).
In the 2000s the species was put on the quota management system, and recovered from the Bonamia infection (a parasitic disease) which blighted the fishery from 1986 to the mid-1990s. The Bluff Oyster and Southland Seaford Festival every April attracts visitors from all over the country.
The Fiordland Lobster Company Ltd (founded in 1989) specialises in the capture and export of live lobsters to Asia. Its principal operations are at Te Anau, with depots in Riverton/Aparima, Milford Sound and Jackson Bay. It processes more than 300 tonnes of live lobsters annually, for a return of $18 million.
Southland has the largest rock lobster (crayfish) fishery in New Zealand, currently earning more than $30 million in annual exports, mostly to Hong Kong. The most productive waters are in Fiordland. Lobster processing companies, including the Māori-owned Ngāi Tahu Fisheries, also operate from Bluff, Riverton/Aparima and Stewart Island.
The Paua Quota Management Area for Otago and Southland accounts for 35% of the country’s pāua catch, with two-thirds coming from Stewart Island and Fiordland. Three companies in Riverton/Aparima export pāua-shell jewellery. Another shellfish, green-lipped mussel, is farmed at Stewart Island and processed in Bluff.