At the heart of our story are two brothers, Geoff and Steve who have patiently built a thriving local and export business, with their wives, Liz and Christine. From one small boat, Waikawa Fishing Company Ltd has developed into a business employing 20 staff and supplying domestic and export markets from our base in the Marlborough Sounds.

Dale and Mildred Connor
Our story starts, on one side of Cook Strait, in the early 1950s. Dale Connor started working in Wellington as a deckhand at age 14. He soon progressed to the inter-island ferry of the time, the Tamahine. In Picton, he fell under the spell of Mildred Keenan, of Ngai Tahu and Te Ati Awa descent. They married there and had six children.

At Christmas time, the Connor family would spend weeks cruising the Marlborough Sounds. Geoff Connor was the first to go out fishing and last to come in. Steve, three years his junior, caught garfish while still at school, storing it in the science class freezers and selling it to classmates.

After working separately for some years, in 1981 the brothers bought their first boat, the Mavis which was little more than a motorised dinghy. They caught butterfish in the outer Sounds, then shark, before turning to paua diving.

In 1984, the Waikawa Fishing Company Ltd was formed with the brothers and their wives as directors. FV Motuara was launched in 1984, a 45 foot fishing vessel named after the island in Queen Charlotte Sound, home to Mildred’s whanau. In the late 1980s, the company bought the Swiftsure which was used for catching shark, ling and groper, and diving for paua and kina.

In 1992 Carey’s Picton boatyard designed and built the 19m Te Kahurangi which initially caught Bluefin tuna. It is still working today, mostly on crayfish quota.

The next generation of Connor whanau started to emerge. Nephew Michael Beech qualified as a skipper and came on-board. Geoff and Liz’s son Lance now manages port operations for the family company and acts as a relief skipper. Most recently, Steve and Christine’s daughter, Amber-Louise, has begun working for the company.

In early 2009, the 25m-Australian-built RV Sea Hawke II, was bought from Ngai Tahu Seafood Ltd with quota for crayfish and wetfish. A Japanese built vessel, the 29m Pacific Challenger was also bought and has proved ideal for trawling and lining around New Zealand.

In 2009 Waikawa Fishing Company won unused quota for scampi - the slender New Zealand lobster Metanephrops challengeri, barely known to most Kiwis. The Sea Hawke catches scampi in waters below 400m off the Kaikoura coastline. Most of the scampi catch is sold into the Chinese market. When President Xi Jingping lunched in Auckland in 2014, the chef insisted Connors Catch scampi was on the menu The company has always been innovative and wanting to work sustainably. Christine’s design for the company’s Connors Catch scampi export carton won a printing and packaging award in 2013.

In 2014, a $7.8m Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment grant was made to the company, in collaboration with the Cawthron Institute to do six years of research on scampi.

A special hatchery for scampi has been developed at Cawthron’s Nelson facility – the first in the world – to test if the species can be developed for aquaculture. The research programme will also look at ideas developed by Geoff and Steve.

These include ropeless pots for scampi an inflationary device to bring the pot to the surface A revolutionary bait the Connors want trialled for scampi A sea water ‘habitat’ is being tested to target highly valued species without the risk to marine animals created by trawling. Discussions are underway with Cuddons, a leading engineering firm in Marlborough, about the prospects of it building a new 40m vessel. The brothers want to look at putting an alternative energy supply, such as solar, into any new vessel. In early 2015, the Sea Hawke II was diverted from catching scampi to act as a supply & support vessel for seismic surveying work off the Otago coast. Providing a vessel for such work has been a good earner in recent years.

Both men are rightly proud of what they, their wives, whanau and staff have achieved. Today the company is employing 20 staff across the three boats MV Te Kahurangi MV Pacific Challenger MV Sea Hawke II.

The spacious offices of Waikawa Fishing Company are in Blenheim’s flagship building, Rangitane House, the former Chief Post Office. The walls are adorned with photos of the vessels the company has operated, fish that have been caught and family members who’ve played a role, right back to Dale and Mildred.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitu te moana
Man disappears but the ocean remains.
© Waikawa Fishing Company Limited