The sight of Russian crewmen being ushered into managed isolation last year highlighted just how reliant the fishing industry has become on foreign labour.
It seems that Covid-19 has brought to the surface deficiencies in the labour force behind an industry that was worth $2 billion in exports last year.
Those Russian and Ukrainian seaman were bound for one of the southern hemisphere's biggest seafood companies - Sealord.
Nelson-based Sealord's operations encompass deep-sea fishing and finfish aquaculture operations, employing more than 1000 people in New Zealand and 240 people overseas.
Sealord is equally owned by Māori through Moana New Zealand, and global seafood company, Japan's Nippon Suisan Kaisha.
Chief executive Doug Paulin says the labour shortage in the industry is "a live issue" particularly in the sea-based component of the business.
"In reality it's always been an issue for the deepwater fishing industry," Paulin says.
"As unemployment came down over the years prior to Covid actually hitting, it meant that a greater number of fishing companies have had to resort to bringing skilled fishermen in from outside the country.
"And for the seafood industry, what has happened this year - not only have we been unable to attract enough people on to our vessels - we have not been able to attract enough people on to land-based roles.
"So we have vacancies in our factories now as well as vacancies on our fishing boats," he said.
Putting aside Covid, why is it so difficult to attract people?
"You can certainly earn a lot of money," Paulin said.
"It is an industry where you can work your way all the way up to the top, from a fishing vessel perspective," he said.
"All of our skippers are people who have joined our industry, worked at the lowest level and made their way to the top," Paulin says.
"They did that at a time when I think socio-generationally - taking on more manual-oriented roles was something that people didn't mind doing.
"In some instances - it's something they aspired to do because of the challenge.
"But I think what's happening now is that - and I've got teenage kids - the aspirations of younger New Zealanders are changing."
The generation game
"Where they want to work and what they want to do will evolve over time.
"I'm not convinced that that's a bad thing - I fact I don't think it is - that your kids want to do something that is perhaps different to what you did back in the day.
"So I think the expectations of younger people are changing.
"But that means the pool that we are trying to draw on - and a lot of other primary industries are trying to draw on - is getting smaller at that bottom end where you are bringing people in to train and develop.
"That pool is shrinking and there are a lot of different industries who are now desperate to get those people because their various different arrangements such as RSE schemes for horticulture have come under pressure.
"Covid-19 has just exacerbated it even more than what has been the case for many industries, not just fishing."
Paulin said the industry's problems did not come down to training, or the lack of it.
At Sealord, most of the training is done in-house over the first two to three years.
Those who stick it out tend to stay, he says.
There are also plenty of opportunities for apprenticeships, on land or at sea.
Paulin says deep sea fishing is not for everyone but it can be rewarding.
A trainee can move from being a deckhand to a fisher after the first year, earning between $50,000 to $70,000 a year.
Trip on, trip off
Trip on, trip off typically means six weeks at sea, then six weeks off.
It's a split shift, six hours on then six hours off, or eight hours on and eight hours off.
Sealord, over the last 30 years, relied heavily on charter vessels to catch its quota.
Typically, those vessels are crewed by foreigners.
Three of those vessels were almost entirely crewed by Russian or Ukrainian fishermen.
Sealord has spent $80 million on a new boat which allowed it get rid of one of those vessels, and it is predominantly crewed by Kiwis.
The company has just given notice on one of the two remaining charter boats, which will leave at the end of this year.
Sealord's board has indicated support for another New Zealand owned and crewed boat, the last of the foreign-owned and crewed vessels will go some time in the next three years.
"At that point of time, we will be fishing with vessels that we own with predominantly Kiwi fishers," he said.
"Specifically, the industry is short of marine fishing engineers and factory engineers.
"And it's just a matter of getting enough people into the bottom end to train and to ensure that boats can go to sea with enough people.
"If we can keep them for three years, then typically they stay."
Specifically Covid has hit the company's bottom line by $3m or $4m this (September) financial year from a labour perspective. He said there was potential to take another $2m to $4m financial hit yet before the year is out.
Normally the company hires about 400 seasonal workers and so far has only been able to get 180.
Not enough people
NZX-listed Sanford is also finding it challenging to get people.
"In the past it has been able to supplement its workforce with people working holidays which clearly took a dive on the back of Covid," Sanford's chief people officer Karen Duffy said.
"For us, the burning platform is the immigration restriction.
"A lot of highly skilled people are returning to New Zealand, so we were able to attract people in the highly skilled roles.
"But certainly at the front end of the business, where we have needed to top up labour numbers with international people, that's a big pain-point for us."
Sanford's vessels are crewed predominantly by New Zealanders, but she says it remains difficult to attract people to roles at sea.
"So that is an ongoing opportunity to grow the industry."
She said Sanford's labour issues did not come down to the money being offered.
"There is just not enough people available for work."
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