After a lifetime in the fishing industry, blotted by fisheries convictions which landed two of the biggest fines ever imposed in New Zealand courts, Nino D'Esposito says he won't be rocking the boat any more.

But he will still be riding the wave.

Despite the sale of Hawke's Bay Seafoods to Ngati Kahungunu Iwi, and the creation of instant fisheries giant Takitimu Seafoods, he says he will be around as long as the new owners need him.

Aged 59, he could be at the factory and shop site he developed around the former Snapper Jack's fish and chip shop on the corner of Pandora Rd and West Quay in Napier for another five years or more, continuing as an adviser.

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"I'm here as long as they want me," he says in his office overlooking the Napier inner harbour a couple of days after Monday's ceremonial handover.

Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated CEO Chrissy Hape pokes her head through the door.

As interim CEO of Takitimu Seafoods, he says: "She's the boss now."

The tangles with the Ministry of Primary Industries, its fisheries division and the courts, pose questions about the continued involvement of the D'Esposito family.

Iwi chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana lays out the reason in simple terms:

"If they weren't involved we wouldn't have bought into the company at all.

"They are the experts and know the region and market, we just invested to improve and build on things at Takitimu Seafoods for the future."

What a man who has dozens of convictions for fishery regulation breaches brings to the table is vast — built on living the industry from schooldays, starting Harbour Inn Seafoods in Petone in the 1980s, the move to Hawke's Bay in 1993, to the international contacts, particularly Japan, which he and Tomoana have visited together many times.

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The big link is the Tokyo fish products giant Nippon Suisan Kaisha, better known as Nissui, which has annual revenue well over $7 billion a year. The Hawke's Bay company's revenue is a tiddler by comparison, at about $25 million a year.

Built around Ngati Kahungunu's $50 million share of the Te Ohu Kaimoana fisheries asset stemming from the Maori Fisheries Settlement, the iwi now has equity exceeding $70 million.

But D'Esposito is determined that as the net widens and other iwi become involved the turnover of Takitimu Seafoods and the iwi assets will grow.

Nino D'Esposito, the pressure's off as Hawke's Bay Seafoods changes hands. Photo / Doug Laing
Nino D'Esposito, the pressure's off as Hawke's Bay Seafoods changes hands. Photo / Doug Laing

The iwi itself has steered a steady course, from the leasing of catch quota to Hawke's Bay Seafoods as the company grew to provide over 200 jobs, as many as 80 per cent members of the iwi.

The iwi and Hawke's Bay Seafoods formed a joint venture to buy and run the factor trawler Glomfjord, currently with 14 aboard, mainly also from the iwi, fishing for squid on the Mermoo Bank, part of the Chatham rise off the east coast of the South Island, and heading for the hoki season off the west coast in June.

For the iwi it's been strategy for a long time, and scholarships and other opportunities for members have long had the aim of making sure it has its own people with the academic qualifications and skills needed to run such larger-scale enterprises.

Nino D'Esposito is the third generation of his family in the industry in New Zealand, alongside brother Giancarlo (Joe), and son Marcus managing the factor, is the fourth.
Sons of Maria and Guiseppe,who came to New Zealand in 1950, Nino and Joe have three sisters who all went to university — a banker, an accountant and another with a law degree.

But it was grandfather Antonino Muollo who paved the way, arriving in New Zealand in 1961 from the seaside Italian village of Marina di Puolo, to start the family fishing dynasty in New Zealand.

Nino D'Esposito, who yearns for a holiday in Italy with wife Karina later in the year, isn't exactly repentant about the tangles that have seen him and associated fishing interests fined a total of more than $2 million, in the two biggest of a number of hits on his companies.

"I don't really want to talk too much about that. Remember, we weren't found guilty, we pleaded guilty because we couldn't afford to carry on any more."

"I have got a lot of pressure off now," he says.

"I'm glad it's over and we can get on with our lives. I have had a really rough few years. I carry my tragedies every day."

One of those days was when the company handover took place on Monday. The celebration was missing Nino's son Daniel and stepson Jason, who died barely 10 months apart.

When he should have been travelling to Wellington to hear a judge's long-awaited judgement in the last week of February, D'Esposito said he was heading in the opposite direction Tauranga to bring Jason back to Hawke's Bay for the funeral.

Both Daniel and Jason had worked in the business, and D'Esposito said that while the handover was an emotional time for its significance on all fronts – particular the aspirations of the people of the country's third-largest iwi — there was still something missing, and it was big.

There was a special cheer from the workers, a tear or two welled in the eyes of the man:

"I really wanted Daniel and Jason to be there."