Fishing in Nelson


A short history of fishing in Nelson

Fish bones in middens around Nelson testify that seafood was an important protein source for pre-European Māori, while stones used to weigh beach seines show the sophistication of their catching methods. Once the settlers arrived, fish and oyster saloons were common until these shellfish became the first victim of over-fishing.

Sealords trawler “Will WatchSealords trawler "Will Watch"  4 May 1987. The Nelson Provincial Museum, The Nelson Mail Collection: 4676A
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Commercial fishing was limited by difficulties in storage and transport until 1900, when the Nelson Fishing Company was formed and installed freezing machinery at its new premises at the port. New technology went hand in hand with other changes, such as the development of trawling, as oil-fired vessels became more efficient and replaced coal burning steamers.

Wharf, Nelson.Wharf, Nelson. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 178493
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Until the Second World War the New Zealand fishery was characterised by little fleets of small owner-operated vessels, supplying local markets from the inshore fishery. As well as supplying local shops, fish from Nelson was shipped to Wellington on the overnight ferry that ran right up until 1953, often with an even fresher catch slung aboard in large baskets at French Pass.

By 1960 there were 21 fishing boats registered in Nelson and 33 full time fishermen. Snapper and Tarakihi, Gurnard and Trevally dominated the catch, as they did in New Zealand's other inshore fisheries. In the mid-60s the way was open for expansion into deeper waters, and the newly reclaimed land around Port Nelson  was just the place to site a fish factory. New Zealand Sea Products Export Ltd  was formed in 1965 and was poised to revolutionise fishing in Nelson and beyond. The Harbour Board pulled out the stops to get the reclaimed site ready for the building and even agreed to remit part of the lease until the business was established.

Noleen Burton who worked at the factory recalls: "We all stood on the wharf and watched the two big Sea Harvester trawlers, which had originated in Trondheim Norway, arrive at different times ready to begin. After the arrival of the trawlers, the whole operation began to mushroom, with jubilation at the first overseas sales. All factory staff were allocated a free half pound of fish per family member per week. Smoked fish and fishmeal production began also. The future looked rosy." But the firm went into receivership in October 1968.

The Frog PondPart of Nelson's fishing fleet at rest in what they call "the Frog Pond", behind the northern end of the old Main Wharf. c. July, 1974. Port Nelson
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One of the trawlers was bought by the government and became the James Cook research vessel; the premises and equipment were sold to a consortium and one of the trawler skippers, Charles Hufflett, became the managing director of a new company, Sealord Products Limited.

In the mid-1970s government export incentives stimulated the industry, which invested in more and bigger boats. Depth sounders, radar, sonar, and advances in fishing gear added to the size of the catch and the number of fishing companies in Nelson grew.

In 1978 a storm arose over the government decision to put a catch limit on Tasman Bay snapper - these had been pair-trawled by Sealord's Whitby and Fifeshire, and Skeggs' Waihola and Hawea, gathering quantities that would today be remarkable for the level of exploitation. By the early ‘80s a crisis had developed in the coastal fisheries, but two developments opened up a way forward: the move into deep sea fisheries and the establishment of a quota management system.

Amatal VoyagerAmaltal Voyager arriving in Nelson, October 1983. The Nelson Provincial Museum, The Nelson Mail Collection: 5304
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Over the next 20 years the fishing industry became one of New Zealand's biggest export earners and one of Nelson's biggest employers. At times things have been tough for the inshore fishing fleet, with diesel prices and the demise of the Tasman Bay scallop enhancement scheme adding to their woes. However, the ability to diversify between tuna, oysters and wetfish on a seasonal basis helps to keep them afloat. Deep-sea fishing remains a mainstay of the industry, with the hoki season its busiest period.

Sealord still has its processing headquarters and most of its administration based in Nelson. Skeggs has now left town, though they still have an interest in aquaculture through Pacifica Seafoods. Other major players are Amaltal and Solander, NZ King Salmon, Talleys in Motueka and Sanford in Havelock. Nelson is still the biggest seafood port in Australasia, but the growth today is towards aquaculture, particularly in the processing of farmed salmon and mussels.  

This article was first published in RePort (Port Nelson news), August 2009 (updated 2022)

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  • i was on board the whitby in 1978 when pair trawling skippered by mike connolly, the skipper of the fifeshire was shorty duggan, i think we caught they think would have been a world record catch for one species of fish, would like to know if this still stands, we were in the catch magazine, would love to know and if there is still any memorabilier of this to show my friends, thanking you

    Posted by michael jones, 03/04/2020 9:18pm (4 years ago)

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Further sources - Fishing in Nelson



  • Amaltal fishing company Limited (1996) Spotlight on South Island New Zealand. Spotlight Communications, pp.12-13
  • Challis, A.J. (1976) An archaic site : Jacketts Island South, Tasman Bay, New Zealand. Newsletter (New Zealand Archaeological Association), 19(3), pp.124-138 
  • King, D. (2007, January 24) Changing course. Press. Supp.pp.1-12  
  • Leach, F. & Boocock, A. (1994) The impact of pre-European Maori fisherman on the New Zealand snapper, Pagrus auratus, in the vicinity of Rotokura, Tasman Bay. New Zealand journal of archaeology, 16, pp.69-84  
  • Nelson the fishing capital of New Zealand (1991, July 24) Nelson Evening Mail Supplement.  
  • Wright, K  (1990) Nelson and Marlborough oyster history. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies,  2(4), p.3

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