Two and three decades ago, Godfrey Wilson consistently had 250 fishing vessels for sale. Now there are just 10 on the books of his company, Maritime International, TIM PANKHURST reports.

The veteran ship broker has been at the heart of enormous change in the inshore industry. He has seen it develop from the Olympic fishery of the 1970s and early to mid-1980s when there were few catch constraints and too many boats chasing too few fish, to today’s highly constrained, far more efficient and sustainable fishery.

In that time the country’s fishing fleet has shrunk from around 3500 vessels at its peak in the early 1980s to just over 1000 registered today.

The fishery is undoubtedly in better shape but has lost many of its characters and there are significant structural challenges and formidable barriers to entry – the boats are old, returns are poor, crew are hard to find, quota is unavailable or unaffordable.

Wilson, who says he “facilitates the sale” rather than sells boats, has done so 400 times in the last 20 years. He is the only advertiser to have featured in virtually every issue of this magazine and its predecessors since its inception 40 years ago.

Now he is downsizing. The boats and the buyers are no longer there.

“We have got an ancient fleet that costs a lot of money to maintain,” he says.

“The oldest boat I’ve got listed for sale was built in 1934. “It’s in good condition – Silver Foam fishing out of Lyttelton. Owner wants $95k and as a working fishing vessel it’s worth that.”

But there are few takers for such classically designed, kauri-hulled, totara-decked, well-built workhorses. “All the boats are really old,” Wilson says.

“Why would you sell a 30 to 40-year-old boat to buy another of similar age, unless it was substantially different?

“People are not changing their boats and they cannot afford to buy new ones.”

He says the quota owners have got to find ways to assist the modernization of the fleet. In other countries the fishing industry would look for a government handout but that is not an option.

“We are not that sort of country anymore.

“If we started subsidising the fishing industry it would have other trade implications. We can’t do it.

“The fundamental problem is that the quota is overvalued.

“The return for the boat has got to get better. In some cases, people are getting less return now than they did in the 1980s. “And hanging over their heads are cameras. That’s another cost.”

He believes it will not be a case of running out of fish, rather the people to catch them. There is little incentive for young men to opt for a career in inshore fishing or go way out on a limb and buy a boat or quota if they can get it, when the returns are so low.

There are also the increasing pressures from the ever more strident anti-commercial fishing environmental and recreational lobbies.

Proposing banning commercial fishing within the three mile limit, or even out to 12 miles, arguing the fish can be caught further out, shows no understanding of species distribution.

 “I don’t know how you convince those people,” Wilson says. “It’s dogma.”

He believes the fishing sector has been doing a good job in getting people to appreciate it is protective of the sea and the environment – Adam Clow and his concern for seabirds is a good example – but there needs to be a continuing effort.

Wilson cut his teeth in the insurance business with NZI in the late 60s before starting in marine insurance with Lombard in Christchurch in 1970.

After a stint in Fiji he became Lombard’s South Island manager before moving to Wellington and setting up as a marine insurance broker on his own account in 1983.

That led to close association with commercial fishermen through their federation during a turbulent time of political protest and drama in the lead-up to the introduction of the Quota Management System.

As well as insuring members’ boats, helping out stuffing envelopes in the federation office and increasingly brokering sales and purchases in partnership with federation president Dick Hall, Wilson had a vital role at the annual conferences.

That was to escort the fishermens’ wives on their daytime programmes centred around bus trips to local sights. “Back then the wives were a lot more boisterous than they are today,” Wilson says.

“They filled them up with wine on the bus, there was always plenty of bubbles. “They were great party trips. We had heaps of fun, so many crazy things.”

The men were pretty boisterous too, not least federation general secretary Peter Stevens, who also edited Professional Fishermen, a forerunner to this magazine. “We got on really well, but he could also be very difficult, very stubborn.

“He didn’t tolerate fools and you either liked him or you hated him.

“He resigned from the federation about 200 times probably in what was a tumultuous time – definitely a fishing industry character.”

Wilson’s contribution to the industry was recognized with the awarding of the Electronic Navigation Shield at the 2008 federation conference.

He has been president of the Cook Strait Commercial Fishermen’s Association since 2010.

The federation lost membership and influence when the rock lobster, paua and finfish sectors split off to pursue their own interests.

However, Wilson remains an advocate for the benefits of membership, among them access to a discount n3 trade card, a now privately-owned successor to the Government Stores Board.

He says the savings from discounts at scores of retail outlets, from building materials and plumbing to fuel and tyres, more than cover the annual federation subscription.

Despite the challenges, Wilson, a fit-looking, lean 74-year-old, is not about to drop anchor. At the Seaview Marina in Wellington he admires the sleek lines of Steve Mayree, a well-known Cook Strait cray boat owned by Grant Robinson that formerly tied up opposite the popular Shed 5 and Dockside waterside restaurants and is now a regular in Island Bay.

Wilson has the vessel on his books for $365k – an 18.5m Marko Sambrailo design with twin screws, each Scania D112 motor developing 650 horsepower, enough grunt to double as a work boat or tug, with a towing post fixed at the head of the roomy deck.

“I’ve got a long way to go yet,” Wilson says, just like the sturdy vessels on his register.