Morning Story: Something fishy is going on here

By Mark Story

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About 25 years ago I picked up a spiny tuatara.

Surprisingly softer than it looked, it was like holding a writhing piece of rocky-road.

Paranoid of hurting it, I relaxed my grip and watched it run up my arm in its ungainly four-legged gait.

What an honour meeting this enchanting piece of antiquity.

I was 17 and was toiling away with native fauna during a week's voluntary work at the then Mt Bruce Wildlife Reserve in Wairarapa.

The 23-year-old memory came flooding back last month after spying a photo in this newspaper of the endemic reptile on release at Cape Sanctuary.

While the picture sparked some great memories there's ultimately something unsettling about seeing this magnificent species only in sanctuaries.

Like the many other endangered numbers released at this superb enclosure, including kaka, kiwi, pateke, kokako, takahe and kakariki, the reptiles have become museum pieces.

And of course there was some irony in last month's release, where despite predating us in this country by 220 million years, they were treated like new arrivals.

Once thriving in the then predator-free Shaky Isles, most these days can be viewed only from behind predator-proof fences.

And they're not alone.

Recent gloom from local recreational fishermen bemoaning their catch indicates our marine species are heading in the same direction.

For the past few weeks Hawke's Bay Today has published a flurry of letters about the species that got away. Many of the letter writers said they'd fished these shores all their lives - with diminishing returns.

I have to agree.

Since moving back to Hawke's Bay almost a decade ago I've surfcasted without success on scores of occasions. Playing all the variables - various bait, techniques, lunar cycles and tidal conditions - I've thrown the line in the briny from Whirinaki way to Aramoana Beach in Central Hawke's Bay. And apart from the odd writhing shark and a few undersized kahawai (which I've always thrown back to appease Tangaroa), the only sizeable catch from Hawke Bay was a nasty stingray off Te Awanga.

Thankfully the filthy thing thrashed itself loose in 2 inches of water.

The other catch worth mentioning was at the Ngaruroro River mouth where I landed a giant seagull. I could feel a strong resistance on the line and assumed I'd snared a fat snapper. That is, until I realised it was strange that my line wasn't breaking the water surface - and even odder that a large seagull was flying incrementally (and directly) closer to where I thought I was reeling in dinner.

For the next 40 minutes, with the giant seabird making angry noises and biting my hands with a sharp bill, I managed to wrench the hook free from its beak and untangle the masses of nylon from its wing and legs.

Finally unfettered, it flew away, and so ended the entertainment for a watching group of Mongrel Mob members enjoying a few quarts next to their car. They applauded at the laboured release, and gave some advice: "You should have taken that home to eat bro," one teased with more laughter.

My inept efforts with rod have become the family joke. The kids tease me mercilessly as I hose down the rod and reel after another luckless outing: "Tangaroa doesn't like you dad".

Damn straight he doesn't.

Yet I've never knowingly offended the Maori god of the sea.

If he had a beef, I'd have thought it'd be better directed towards whoever is pillaging his domain. It's certainly not me.

While fishermen are prone to exaggeration, there's simply too much anecdotal evidence washing up on these shores indicating the fish simply aren't there.

In the same way tuatara were once commonplace, I'd hate to think my great-grandchildren will one day view kahawai in some watery sanctuary, where we'll tell them stories of how we smoked them with brown sugar, that they were in fact once the people's fish.

Here's hoping for a kahawai these Christmas holidays. I'll dine out on that at home in more ways than one.

Here's also hoping Tangaroa takes his attention off me - and has a quiet word in the ear of Primary Industries Minister, David Carter.

Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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