While farmers have been hit hard by drought conditions the weather has brought record numbers of skipjack tuna to our waters by Christopher Adams

A smile spreads across Eric Barratt's face as he looks out of the helicopter window.

Thousands of feet below, the largest vessel in Sanford's Pacific tuna fleet, the 80m San Nikunau, has come into view amid the dark blue expanse of the Tasman Sea.

As the chopper descends towards the boat, Barratt - the NZX-listed company's managing director - says it's been three years since he last paid a visit to a vessel at sea.

"This year the weather is right and the fishing is right," he explains.


While the summer's hot, dry weather has hit farmers hard, Barratt says the conditions have brought record numbers of migratory skipjack tuna into New Zealand waters.

And prices for skipjack are at a record high of $2700 a tonne, he says.

Barratt says Sanford is on track to land about $25 million worth of the fish in this New Zealand season.

That will be around twice the value of last year's catch.

"There is some good news out there in terms of the drought," Barratt says.

The San Nikunau's helipad is bouncing up and down on the swell and after couple of hair-raising aborted attempts the pilot manages to set the Eurocopter down.

The transition from downtown Auckland to a fishing vessel at sea, in the space of one hour, is surreal.

We're almost 50 miles off New Plymouth and the only land visible is the top of Mt Taranaki. There's an odd smell on board - a combination of salty fishing nets, fuel and the capsicums that are being roasted up for lunch in the galley.

Last year Sanford was convicted in the United States on a number of charges including discharging waste water from the vessel into American Samoa's Pago Pago harbour without using an oily water separator, which separates oil from bilge water before it's discharged overboard.

The San Nikunau's former chief engineer, James Pogue of Idaho, was also found guilty on two charges relating to the upkeep of oil record books.

At the sentencing in January Sanford was fined US$1.9 million ($2.27 million) and ordered to pay a further US$500,000 to a US fishing foundation.

While waiting for the helicopter to arrive at the Mechanics Bay heliport, Barratt revealed the one regret he has about the Pago Pago case.

Well before Sanford was indicted, the US Department of Justice offered the company a deal, he says.

"They said, 'Give us three million and we'll walk away'."

Sanford declined the offer, choosing to instead fight the case in the American courts.

In retrospect, Barratt says the company should have taken the offer when it had the chance, but accepting such a deal was "just not our culture".

"We didn't believe we were guilty," he says.

Barratt, who will leave Sanford at the end of 2013 after 15 years at the helm of the Auckland-based fishing company, says the court case was "an absolutely stressful process".

"I would never go into the US court system ever again."

The San Nikunau was also detained by the US authorities in Pago Pago for almost six months while skipjack tuna prices were pushing new highs - losing the company millions in revenue.

Following a safety briefing Barratt takes us on a tour of the vessel which, along with the two other tuna purse seiners in Sanford's fleet, has gone through a major refit since the court case.

The boats have gained ISO 14001 accreditation, meaning all of their waste management systems and recording systems have been upgraded to meet certification.

Barratt proudly shows off the San Nikunau's brand new oily water separator, which replaced older technology used before the refit.

In the engine room's control station Tim Clubb, the vessel's new chief engineer, says he feels sorry for his predecessor, Pogue, who was sentenced to 30 days' prison, two years' supervision and ordered to pay a US$6000 fine following his conviction on the oil book charges.

Clubb reckons the US Department of Justice re-interpreted international law to "get the boat".

As we get back up on deck the San Nikunau is zeroing in on schools of skipjack, which can be seen as brilliant silver flashes on the ocean surface. A spotter plane is circling overhead and two speed boats, used to "herd" fish into the net, are racing around next to the vessel.

The San Nikunau uses purse seining, which involves setting a circular wall of net around an entire school of fish. The bottom of the net is then quickly "pursed" together, capturing the tuna inside.

First mate Dave Arthur, a veteran of more than 40 years in the industry, says the crew managed to land only 15 tonnes of skipjack during the previous day's fishing.

On one set they got a "skunk", he says, meaning the school managed to escape the net before it was pursed.

A week ago the San Nikunau caught 350 tonnes of skipjack, worth close to $1 million at current prices, in a single net.

"You can skunk and skunk and skunk and then all of a sudden - boom - you're up again," Arthur says. "It's a very exciting fishery and this year's been pretty good to us."

On the bridge, captain Mike Rhodes says the New Zealand skipjack season has been exceptional so far.

"If you get very good weather - regardless of sea temperatures - then the fish tend to show themselves," Rhodes says. "That's the key to it for us - good, calm, hot and settled conditions. We pray for those conditions."

With the net set, the crew begin heaving little packages of green dye into the ocean and banging metal tools against the side of the boat. Both actions help scare the fish away from the opening of the net and potential freedom.

While scooping up an entire school of fish might, for the environmentally conscious, seem pretty horrific, skipjack are considered one of the more sustainable tuna species.

There is no catch limit and the fishery is managed not by individual countries but the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, a treaty-based organisation made up of 25 member nations, including New Zealand, which oversees migratory fish stocks. According to the commission, almost 2.5 million tonnes of skipjack was caught globally in 2011.

A Ministry of Fisheries report says the New Zealand skipjack catch, which includes fish caught both inside and outside the country's exclusive economic zone by New Zealand vessels, peaked at 33,659 tonnes in 2007.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Karli Thomas says concerns have been raised about "range contraction" at the northern end of the Pacific skipjack migration, around Japan, which could indicate that the species is coming under pressure.

While stocks are robust compared with other tuna species, there's an urgent need for more controls to be placed on commercial skipjack fishing, including catch limits, she says.

"Countries need to make that a priority before skipjack follows other tuna species into trouble."

Barratt says there are bycatch issues with purse seining, including the unintended capture of marlin, turtles, dolphins and other tuna species.

"The real focus is to release [bycatch] live," he says.

Thomas says there are also concerns around the use of fish aggregating devices in the tropical Pacific areas where skipjack are caught.

The devices attract large schools of skipjack, but also juvenile fish from more vulnerable tuna species, such as bigeye and yellowfin, which also get scooped up in purse seines, she says.

No bycatch is caught during the Business Herald's visit.

It isn't a great haul though. Out of an estimated 40 tonne school, only six to seven tonnes is netted - the rest escaped. It's a partial skunk.

The skipjack are frozen whole on board and will be unloaded at the Port of Tauranga and then shipped to canneries in the Philippines and Mauritius. From there they'll be dispatched to supermarkets around the world.

If Rhodes is disappointed with the catch, he doesn't really show it. The smile hasn't disappeared from his face since we hopped off the chopper.

"It's a percentage game - sometimes you win and sometimes you lose," he says. "You have to play the odds."

Barratt to stay with fishing industry

Sanford managing director Eric Barratt won't reveal exactly what he'll do when he leaves the company at the end of 2013 after 15 years in charge.

But he says he will stay connected with the fishing industry in some way, either in New Zealand or overseas.

"I will of course stay loyal to Sanford - I won't do anything that crosses them," Barratt said.

Asked whether he was disappointed that the San Nikunau court case took place during his final years with the firm, Barratt said: "Absolutely".

The court battle - and the controversy over foreign flagged vessels working in New Zealand waters and an oil spill off a Sanford vessel at Timaru port last year - aren't the things he wants to be remembered for, he says. "The people who matter to me know the story."

Barratt said he had made the decision to leave the firm this year "before people start saying I've been there too long".

He became an executive of Sanford in 1982 after the firm acquired Feron Seafoods, his previous employer. Barratt joined the board in 1986 and became managing director in 1998.

Fish tales
San Nikunau

• Purchased by Sanford in 2001.

• 80m long.

• One of three tuna purse seiners Sanford operates throughout the Pacific.

• Has a crew of around 25, made up of Filipinos, New Zealanders and Croatians.

• Can carry up to 1300 tonnes of fish.

Skipjack Tuna

• Grows up to 1m in length.

• Highly migratory, ranging throughout tropical and sub-tropical waters in the western and central Pacific.

• New Zealand is the southern-most point in the migration.

• 2.5 million tonnes caught globally in 2011.

• The New Zealand skipjack catch, which includes fish caught both inside and outside the country's exclusive economic zone, peaked at 33,659 tonnes in 2007.

Sources: Ministry of Fisheries/Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.