“Keeping my Facebook fans updated” are five words you don’t expect to hear come from a commercial fisherman. But Tony “TK” Walker has amassed quite a following of recreational anglers in recent years. Over 5000 in fact.
TK’s followers have been eager to gleen any insights they can from a man who has forged a career successfully catching bluenose, hapuka, bluefin tuna and swordfish commercially.
TK’s popularity online “came about by accident. I put up a Facebook page to keep family and friends updated on what I was up to at sea. I posted up photos of some very large kingfish up to 62kg we caught near the Wanganella Banks (world records by recereational standards) and it went viral.
While the reception was largely positive, typical of the friction that sometimes exists between commercial and recreational fishos there were also negative comments and the odd threat “I had a few rec guys say they were going to come down to my boat and give me a hiding, but I never saw them” TK laughs. Now, he says, everything is all positive. “People have seen that I am happy to share information on a regular basis, and hundreds of rec guys have benefited from that information.”
“I think people see that, recreational or commercial, we all want the same thing and that is a healthy fishery for many years to come.”
TK’s attitude and the relationships he has built through social media is a refreshing dynamic. The more I talk to TK, the more interesting the discussion becomes as we talk about sustainability of the fishery, the evolution of marine electronics and the future challenges of the fishing industry .
IT ALL STARTED IN WHANGA
Whangamata is where TK first started his career as a commercial fisherman, and it is still home. “Both my Grandfather and Father were commercial fisherman but I was originally a carpenter by trade. I spent some time working overseas as a young fella. In the 1980’s my Dad invested a bit of money I’d sent home in a fishing boat, and the rest is history.”
“I thought OK this is good, I can go fishing while the weather is good, and go surfing a large part of the year when the swell was up.” So much for the best laid plans, TK has been at sea rain, hail or shine ever since and for the last 30 years he’s averaged 200-300 days per year at sea.
The downside of being at sea so long says TK is missing family in Whangamata, who TK describes as as a typical surfing mad family. “But after I’m at home for 3 days my wife says I start pacing and have to get back to sea. I’m definitely more relaxed out there!”
TK’s first boat was a 26 footer, primarily longlining for snapper out of Whangamata. “In those days there were no electronics, no chart plotters. You navigated by lighthouse and landmarks and your sounder if you had one.”
As electronics have evolved, TK says “Furuno have always led the way. I remember the FE881 paper based sounder we had in one of our first boats. It was that big that the boat listed to port! When other sounders would run out and lose the bottom, the 881 was unreal at reading bluenose off the side of the seamounts.”
“In those days, keep in mind, we had no plotters. If we were fishing an offshore seamount you’d take a compass course out from Mayor or the Barrier and once you were in the vicinity you’d use your sounder and zigzag until you found the high point. We’d drop a line with a flag and light so we’d have a reference point the whole time out there. If you lost your reference point, you’d have to steam all the way back in to get some landmarks!”
THE EVOLUTION OF MARINE ELECTRONICS
As time went on TK moved on to bigger boats like the Vanguard and Rochelle, and went further afield. “That was the time the first FCV souders came on the market. I remember the first FCV292 on Rochelle, it was just beautiful.“
During the 1990’s TK primarily fished the West Coast and Three Kings, commercially fishing for bluenose and hapuka. “I was fishing miles offshore, beyond any shipping traffic, and pretty much had the place to myself for many years, I’d basically go a whole year without seeing another boat. They were pretty mindblowing times, sometimes we’d be landing 5 tonne of bluenose in a shot.”
“In the early 1990’s plotters came in and that changed our whole style of fishing.
We’d event any rock we came across and pretty soon we were mapping out a whole hill.”
As fishing techniques evolved, TK bought a Sanford trawler called the “Red Bluff” in the early 2000’s and converted it to an autoliner. Autolining was first developed by Mustad, an automatic system that allows commercial fishermen to shoot a hook every 1-2 seconds, meaning a longliner could realistically shoot a line of 15,000 – 20,000 hooks. While that might sound like a lot of hooks to your average recreational fisherman TK says autolining is a sustainable way to fish. “We’re shooting gear over a wide area, and we’re moving from one hill to the other.“
“One of our biggest concerns when we fish like this is the interaction with seabirds. New Zealand fishermen are recognized as world leaders in sea bird avoidance. We use a variety of techniques including line weighting to get the gear sinking quickly, tori lines and a new technology lasers which are showing great results.”
When TK kitted out the Red Bluff he purchased a Furuno FCV1150 sounder and Maxsea sea mapping software - he now calls these his “tools of the trade”.
“A builder might take his tools with him from job to job – well I take my FCV1150 and Maxea. Whenever I have sold boats, my FCV1150 and Max have not been part of the sale, they stay with me. To me they are like my tools, they are my IP, they are how I do my job and they travel with me."
“I remember the first time I ran off the side of a hill on the mud with the FCV1150 and I was just blown away, I was reading all the way down to over 2000m. Combine that with a Maxsea seabed mapping system and you’ve got the ultimate combo, now over ten years later I have the whole east and west coast completely mapped out past the 2000m line.
“I remember the first time I showed other commercial fishermen what I was mapping out, and this was before WASSP became popular among commercial fishermen and they were gobsmacked. I also spent a bit of time fishing for King Crab and many people don’t realize but they hold in depths of up to 2000m on the mud, so my FCV1150 and Maxsea became a crucial part of catching them.”
A MOVE TO SURFACE LINING
TK’s time on the Red Bluff eventually led him into surface longlining for tuna and swordfish. “The Red Bluff had all the hardware I needed to chase tuna on her, and I was going to chop if all off the boat. Someone had a word in my ear……go on, have a shot, go on, have a crack…..I did and ended up with 4 or 5 big eye and ½ a tonne of swords. Fishing up near the surface there was no stress about losing gear. That was the start of it.”
Since then TK has spent 5 months of the year chasing tuna (big eye and southern bluefin) and the rest of the year bottom fishing for puka and bluenose, and another upgrade saw TK fishing off the boat “Extreme Limits” a 60ft Westcoaster. “The trusty FCV1150 and Maxsea came with me”
“I am no different to any other commercial fishermen. I use Furuno. I’ve used it on every one of my 14 boats over 30 years. If you look at every commercial fishing boats in any port around the world. They will be using Furuno and that tells you something.”
Near the end of my time on the Extreme Limits I saw a big shift and really to be honest got fed up with the price being dictated to us – not by the market – but by the system.” We knew our fish was being sold for $14kg in the Sydney market but we were only getting $4kg for quality fish like tuna, swordfish and bluenose. That is the reality for fishermen these days.
“I decided to do things differently. That meant fishing outside the 200mile Zone, outside NZ waters. I purchased the Jay Catherine, and that meant I could fish outside the NZ quota system, still land my fish in New Zealand, outsource the handling and shipping, but still get the market rate in Australia or other export market. “There is a lot of complexity still involved with this” explains TK ”I reported into MPI 5 days out from sailing, you’re inspected to ensure there is no NZ product on board ,then 24 hours from crossing out of NZ waters you have to report again, a vessel monitoring system is in place on board, and if you slow to fishing speed inside NZ waters you get messaged straight away.”
“In the end it was pretty frustrating to be steaming 300m offshore, and over very fruitful local grounds. It also opened my eyes up to what is happening just outside NZ waters.”
“There were foreign boats parking themselves on one hill for six weeks and shooting 20,000 hooks a day. Where a Kiwi boat might move from hill to hill, in my observation the foreign flagged vessels don’t care about sustainability the way Kiwi fisherman do, it is not their backyard. I’ve personally seen European boats park up and fish the same hill for weeks on end, and for fish they are not permitted to be catching. That in my mind is not sustainable. That hill will never recover.”
“Then there is the surface lining, there are so many internationally flagged vessels out there catching fish before they even have a chance to enter out waters. I really don’t know the answer is apart from moving our boundaries out another 300 mile and I don’t know if that will ever happen. Places like the Louivelle Ridge which runs from Tonga down to the Chatams, are just getting slammed, unregulated.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR TK?
It raises an interesting question about what is next for TK. A man with years of experience and knowledge, and insights that could be extremely valuable for working out where to next for the NZ fishery as a whole. It sounds like TK’s heart isn’t in the commercial sector any more.
“I’ve loved every minute of my time as a commercial fishermen. If I had my time I’d go back and do it all again. But the body is getting a bit older, and the game is changing.”
“Personally I see myself moving into the charter industry, and that is probably the same advice I would have for someone coming out of high school. If you want to have your own boat one day, the only growing market on the ocean is tourism. My vision from here on in is to pass on my knowledge to the next generation like all commercial fishermen have done in the past. I know the offshore seamounts like the back of my hand thanks to my trusty FCV1150 and Maxsea, and I’d love to be taking some keen recreational guys out there to experience the next frontier of recreational fishing.”
For now that is still just a plan for TK, he is heading off to the Chatam Islands to chase bluenose and ling. “I’ll be sitting in front of a computer screen for a few weeks” TK laughs “That is the reality of fishing these days, I don’t touch a wheel, I use my mouse, and you come to rely on your sounder, plotter and radar screens so much after a few days you start to fall into them.”
What advice does someone who has looked at marine electronics for over 30 years have for the average fishermen? “Turn your gain down! Especially in shallow water, I see so many screen shots on Facebook these days with so much clutter, but how much of that is actual fish? Once you’ve located your bait, turn down your gain so you’re only seeing what is important. And don’t come to rely solely on your fish sign, especially in the deep. Trust what your sounder is telling you about bottom structure, learn the habitat, and read the signs like a good fishermen. Soak up as much knowledge as you can about the seasons and where the fish should be holding and trust your instincts. And have fun out there!”
To follow TK’s adventures go to