Commercial fishers say their catches are down and there’s still debris and sediment heaped on the ocean floor of Hawke’s Bay, as the impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle linger seven months on.
Occasionally, debris surfaces - mostly in the form of logs. It catches in nets and propellers and it damages boats.
A pile of logs pulled from the water over the past few months lay on the floating wharf at Ahuriri’s Iron Pot where the boat of Karl Warr, of Better Fishing is docked when Hawke’s Bay Today paid a visit.
Every vessel in Ahuriri’s encountered logs since the cyclone in some way, Warr said.
The problem is when things will return to normal is unclear - it lies at the whim of Mother Nature and when she decides to provide the favourable currents that will clear it all off the sea floor.
“It is still washing into the port and causing a hazard for them in terms of getting sucked through the propellers of their service vessels, tugs and those sorts of things,” Warr said of the logs and other debris.
“It is hideously expensive if you damage one of those.”
He said he had switched to a more sustainable business model some time ago in an effort to be socially responsible, but that had made things difficult after Cyclone Gabrielle as he fished closer to port in the same waters where the population had been most affected and the most people fish.
“For me to change what I do now and go further away is pretty tough going with one of the smallest boats in the port here.”
Matt Douglas fishes for crayfish and does set netting and longline fishing in deeper waters than Warr.
He said after the cyclone some boats had to travel as far as Cook Strait, spending more on diesel and time away from families, to catch their target species.
“For the long line fleet, there was hardly any fishing here for the first three or four months after the cyclone at all,” Douglas said.
“It takes a big toll but we are a little lucky - we’ve turned over a bit of crew but we are still operating because that is what we have to do.”
The impacts of a shortage of fish were made clear last week as the Department of Conservation (DoC) reported 23 dead seals of “varying age and decomposition” had been found washed up on Ocean Beach over five days.
Laura Boren, the DoC marine science adviser, said all indications pointed to starvation as the cause of death after receiving the results of a necropsy on the seals.
Boren said DoC was aware of more dead seals at Ocean Beach and they had tracked over 50 dead seals in Hawke’s Bay beaches since late August, mostly pups and juveniles.
Douglas said Cyclone Gabrielle’s effect on fish populations could have had something to do with the seals’ deaths, as he had fished for butterfish near Ocean Beach recently and caught far fewer than usual.
“We had no luck. We got three bins and we normally get 15 to 20.”
For the fishers, there is no quick fix - all they can do is keep their fingers crossed that nature will heal itself. Southerly currents are what they want.
“We are hoping, with El Niño, that will naturally clean itself out but how long that is going to take we don’t know,” Douglas said.
Warr said commercial fishers were used to difficult conditions and came prepared with alternative plans.
“It’s an opportune time to reflect on how we are fishing and whether we make any changes to methodology or approaches to fishing with what we are running into,” Warr said.
“Change is difficult, but not changing can be terminal.”
Not everyone in the industry has survived the past seven months. Ngāti Kahungunu’s fisheries business Takitimu Seafoods shut down in April due to financial struggles.
It had reported three years of financial losses, and after the cyclone struck it became clear it wasn’t going to return to profit in the near future, and the pin was pulled, with about 30 people losing their jobs.
The charity FirstMate has been operating for about two years with the aim to support those in the seafood sector and their families with mental health and wellbeing, and has recently secured funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
Vicky Hunt, one of FirstMate’s recently appointed adverse event navigators, said that while the effects were not easy to see on the surface, the already difficult commercial fishery sector was still impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle with silt in the fisheries.
“They are currently having to fish further out, a lot of them have been pulling up, within their net, logs and right up until even now they are still getting onions and apples in their nets,” Hunt said.
She said FirstMate will host a Seafood Sector Wellbeing Event event in Ahuriri at the boat ramp between 11.30am and 3pm on September 21.
James Pocock joined Hawke’s Bay Today in 2021 and writes breaking news and features, with a focus on the environment, local government and post-cyclone issues in the region. He has a keen interest in finding the bigger picture in research and making it more accessible to audiences. He lives in Napier. firstname.lastname@example.org