Aug 16, 2008

Neil Penwarden: In The News

Neil Penwarden: In The News
From The Press, Saturday 2 November 2002 In The News: Neil Penwarden.

Scampi fisherman Neil Penwarden is facing one of the toughest battles of his life, writes Jonathan Milne.

The dogs are going crazy outside, and Neil Penwarden warily pokes his head out into the night to check. Living on remote Muriwai beach, well north of Auckland, he says he cannot be too careful of strangers as a parliamentary committee prepares to investigate his allegations against the Fisheries Ministry."Obviously we're watchful at the moment. There is a security risk with some of these people we're battling with. It's hard, and it's regrettable, but it's just business."Mr Penwarden is tough - he says so himself. At 56, he has the weathered look of a man who has spent much of his life in fishing boats, away from home for months at a time.
He has gone to the ministry, to the courts, to the media, and to the politicians in his bid to show that he had suffered at the hands of some ministry officials who, he believes, were improperly influenced by big industry players. He has painstakingly compiled sworn affidavits from former officials, and from fishermen in his camp and in the opposition's.
Now as people start to listen, he is wary he and his family could be at risk. Talk of plots and violence seems incredible, officials have greeted his concerns sceptically and with allegations of "paranoia".
He says otherwise: "I don't think it's paranoia. And I wouldn't use the word 'conspiracy', but I would certainly say there is a ministry that clearly has its agenda, that allows access only to certain people.
"When I look at the facts and the allegations and review all the things that have happened over the 10 years, you have to say 'hang on a minute, there is something going on here that should be looked at.'"
Mr Penwarden has been in the fractious industry for most of his life, but has never seen a battle like this. From New Plymouth originally, he decided to get into fishing 35 years ago after working in meat exports.
Not one to do things by half-measures, he acquainted himself with the industry by working for three years as the first Kiwi in the American purse seine fleet, fishing for tuna off South America.
"I used to sail from San Diego, midnight on New Year's eve, and come back about the first week in December depending on how the season was running. You were away for 10 months of the year. I was young, single and fit. It was the adventure of a lifetime."
He returned to work in New Zealand on the Sanford fishing company's first purse seiner, the Lindberg, before heading to Australia for 16 years of fishing prawns. "Fishing's very hard, it's extremely hard. And it makes you tough. If you're not tough already and you want to survive in fishing, you get tough."
That is why his battle with other fishermen has been so hard-fought - ever since her arrived back in New Zealand in 1988 with plans to fish scampi and was told "No, you're not, this is our fishery."
His company, Barine Developments, ducked conflict with industry heavyweight Simunovich Fisheries in the Bay of Plenty by sending its trawler Bilyara down in the waters off the Wairarapa. "We were aware that we weren't welcome, we were aware that we weren't getting any help, and that we had zero access to the Ministry of Fisheries, we couldn't engage them at all."
Scampi is to be introduced to the quota management system next year - a decision that has been made in principle by Fisheries Minister Pete Hodgson. The ministry values the scampi fishery at $90 million, based on 1997 figures.
Once scampi enters the quota system, companies' share of the annual take will be based on the amount they caught over two critical seasons in October 1990 - though the companies did not know that at the time.
Mr Penwarden says he relied on ministry advice that the company's catch over that period would not determine its future share of scampi, and so developed the fishery slowly to avoid damaging it.
In 1993, he realised that his low catch figures would indeed count - as would the high catch figures of Simunovich - and that was when the court action started. Simunovich now has 12 scampi boats and is set to receive the bulk of the fishery when quotas are brought in.
The Dominion was reporting Mr Penwarden's courtroom battles as far back as 1997, and last year Barine Developments and four other companies finally won their case against the ministry in the Court of Appeal. The ministry changed the scampi regime to make it more competitive, but not to Mr Penwarden's satisfaction.
"They judged that the successful appellants were small operators. they would run out of money, get tired, lose interest, and go away - and then the ministry could go ahead with what they wanted to do."
And so he began collecting the affidavits and talking to the media and politicians such as Winston Peters. "our intention is to have the Ministry of Fisheries recognise the decision of the Court of Appeal, and rectify their 'unlawful, unreasonable,and unfair' decisions going back many years," Mr Penwarden says. If he loses his battle, he says the future viability of his company is under threat.
Despite long running battles at the top, the Bilyara's crew of six will often chat over the marine radio with the Simunovich crews, or have beers together when they find themselves in port. "Fishermen are very inter-reliant, and there are quite strong friendships between the various operators. The crews get on very well and there's a surprising amount of cooperation. The difficulties exist at the management level, and we've long since given up trying to have a cooperative relationship with Simunovich."
But could he eventually have a beer with Simunovich boss Vaughan Wilkinson, once things are resolved? "I don't think Vaughan Wilkinson's ever going to be my sort of person. But I would like to think that, inasmuch as it's required, we could have a cordial working relationship."