Mussel harvesting in the Marlborough Sounds


Linkwater farmer John Collins worked up to 23 hours a day when he worked in Marlborough’s mussel industry in the early 1980s.  “In those days the industry was struggling and you had to pull finger to make sure it kept ticking over as otherwise it would have gone down the gurgler."

 John Collins remembers his days harvesting mussels while looking at his mussel diary.[Lucy Stronach, 2015] John Collins remembers his days harvesting mussels while looking at his mussel diary.[Lucy Stronach, 2015]
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“We worked Sunday to Thursday which was very hard on the family. Often we’d go back to Havelock at 4am, unload and turn around and go back again.  A lot of times it wasn’t worth me going home to Linkwater.  I often slept on the boat and they supplied the tucker, which was good,” says John.

 Two pages from John’s Mussel diary. [Lucy Stronach, 2015] Two pages from John’s Mussel diary. [Lucy Stronach, 2015]
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When the boat was steaming out to collect a load of mussels, each man on board would have two hours on the wheel, while the others slept. After the two hour stint, he’d wake the next man to take over the wheel and jump into his warm bunk for a sleep.  Sometimes wet and cold, the men would sleep down by the warm boat’s engine where they would dry off.

John began harvesting in 1981 when he worked for Doug Smith and Peter Johnson (Smith Marine Services) on the old scow Vesper.  “There were five to seven people on the boat.  Everything was manhandled. The ropes the mussels grew on were called single droppers. You had to hook them with a grapple, pull them aboard and then pull the rope through a V shaped thing to strip all the mussels off the rope.  They fell into a cruncher which parted the mussels.”

The mussels were bagged into 25 kg bags with a pallet of 40 bags making up a ton.  “The decking on the Vesper was uphill and all the harvest gear was in the stern. We’d put a pallet up the front and soon as we filled the bag, we’d run up and fill the pallet.”

The work was hard and the hours were long - the worst week was 131 and a half hours. Harvesters were paid six dollars an hour which was good money in those days: “But if you worked 15-18 hour days you earned it.  By the end of the week - I’d be like a zombie at home.”

Sometime in 1986/87 John remembers that after finishing harvesting in a howling gale in the Kenepuru Sound, the Wakatere was steaming home in the early hours of the morning. “Everybody was clean stuffed when a young man fell overboard. Clive Godsiff was at the helm and calculated roughly where the man would have fallen off. He got on top of the wheelhouse and using a pig hunting spotlight, eventually spotted the man’s yellow raincoat. He had been in the water for 15 minutes and was nearly dead but was hauled out with some difficulty in the stormy conditions.”

 John’s first day on the mussel harvester John’s first day on the mussel harvester- the Tahawai towing the Vesper, Nydia Bay 24 June 1981. The pallet with 25 kg bags of mussels can be seen. Image courtesy John Collins.
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Havelock is tidal with one narrow changeable channel out to sea, so it is not uncommon for even the most seasoned boaties to get stuck in the mudflat at low tide.  Tradition saw the mussel boats jockeying to be first out of the channel.  Once they had cleared Black Point, opposite Moutapu Bay, eggs were thrown at the boat being passed or any which got stuck.  John brought buckets of mature bantam eggs for the purpose and carrots and potatoes were used when the eggs ran out.

Every Saturday morning 10 tons of big mussels were harvested and put on the Picton ferry headed for markets in the North Island. Davy Jones at Wakatahuri had the biggest mussels. “In those days there were a lot of hippies living down there. Davy used to get the hippie sheilas to come out and sort the mussels.  They were notorious for coming out topless and it was hard to concentrate under those conditions!”

After working on the boats for several years, John came ashore in the late 1980s to work a 40 hour week in the Sanfords’ yard.  They were a man short and he returned to harvesting for a few months: “I loved every minute of it”.

He began working in the rope yard in 1990, where his job was to join and bag rope ready for the seeders to take out onto the farms.  “I was bagging up and kept getting electric shocks off the metal frame of the bagging machine.  There were blue sparks - it was terrifying.”  An electrician couldn’t find any faults and it was finally realised the shocks were coming from static electricity in the lead coils which had been sitting in the sun. “I earthed myself with a bit of chain every time I worked the bagging machine after that!” John said.

Marlborough’s Mussel Industry
 A hiab with an extension on it unloads the Pelorus Trader  onto a TNL (Rai Valley) truck at Okiwi Bay. Image courtesy John Collins. A hiab with an extension on it unloads the Pelorus Trader onto a TNL (Rai Valley) truck at Okiwi Bay. Image courtesy John Collins.
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One of the first mussel farms in the Marlborough Sounds was established in 1974 by a young zoology student, Graeme Clark, who thought it would be fun to go into marine farming after hearing a lecture on the Spanish mussel industry.

“Then the Government introduced tax incentives in the late 1970s and every man and his dog rushed in to marine farm and there was massive over-production,”  he told the Marlborough Express in 2015 when he was still producing up to 500 tonnes a year.1

In the early days of mussel farming in New Zealand, raft cultivation techniques were used. Young mussels floating in the plankton attached themselves to ropes hanging from the rafts and began feeding.  Harvesting was very labour intensive.  Nowadays, a modified Japanese longline system is preferred with long lines of rope suspended between buoys from which hang growing ropes or droppers. The droppers hang to depths of seven to ten metres, and are seeded with stockings filled with tiny mussels.

From small beginnings in the 1960's, New Zealand aquaculture has become a multi-million-dollar industry.  By 2001 aquaculture produce was worth $280 million.2


John Collins was interviewed by Joy Stephens in Havelock in April 2015 (updated July 2020)

Sources used in this story

Most of the material for this story comes from two interviews carried out with John Collins of Linkwater.  The first interview was done by the Marine Farming Association on 29/07/03, transcript supplied by John Collins.  The second interview was conducted by Joy Stephens on 22 March 2015 at Havelock.

  1. Simpson H. (2015, April 29) Uncertainty for Marlborough Sounds Mussel Farmers. Marlborough Express
  2. Wassilieff, M. (2012) Aquaculture - Green-lipped mussels. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12:

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Further sources - Mussel harvesting in the Marlborough Sounds


  • Dawber, C. (2004) Lines in the water: a history of greenshell mussel farming in New Zealand, Picton, N. Z.: October Enterprises Ltd trading as River Press
  • Edmond, V. (ed). (1986) Mussel farming in the Marlborough Sounds, Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO by the Commission for the Environment
  • Jenkins, R. J. (1979; 1985) Mussel cultivation in the Marlborough Sounds (New Zealand), Wellington, N.Z., N.Z.: Fishing Industry Board.
  • Makarios, E. (1999) Nets, Lines and Pots: a history of New Zealand fishing vessels v3, Wellington, N.Z.: IPL Books
  • Martin, L. S. (1981) Mussel farming in the Marlborough Sounds, [Wellington, N.Z.]: Small Business Development Research, Development Finance Corporation of New Zealand
  • O’Halloran, S.M.L. (1983) Mussel farming : ecology, property rights and planning : a case study of the Marlborough Sounds : [thesis] presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in the University of Canterbury [Centre for Resource Management, University of Canterbury and Lincoln College]
  • Percy, T. (2012) A bloke for all seasons: the Peter Yealands story, Christchurch, N. Z.: Wiley Publications Ltd.
  • Pike, R.B. [1971] 1970 report on mussel farming and mussel biology, Wellington, N.Z.: Fishing Industry Board


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