Bob Nicolle

Bob's got one foot out the door

Bob Nicolle is quietly retiring, in more ways than one.  After decades of service on the MFA Executive, he advised that he would not be seeking re-election to the Board. He is also beginning to pull back from his day-to-day involvement in the industry that he has given his life to, since picking Greenshell™ mussels from beaches in the Kenepuru Sounds during the 1970s.

It was an accidental start for the former Cantabrian who first came to Marlborough in 1974, attracted by what the Sounds and environs offered for recreational scuba diving.

A positive outcome from the beach mussel picking exercise was that he met marine farming pioneer Jim Jenkins, who’s enthusiasm convinced him this was the way of the future. This resulted in Bob and his father submitting in applications for two 3ha farm sites in Kauauroa Bay. It took years for the licences – numbers 12 and 13 – to emerge out of Wellington. In the interim, Bob started fishing, initially around Marlborough and then out of Westport, principally he spent his time fishing for cray. It was while he was there, he met Julie, whom he would later marry in 1979.

“When the licences finally came through in 1976 we had 2 years to activate them or we would lose them. So, my father and myself, along with a good friend from Westport set up a small company and jumped into mussel farming knowing little or nothing about it.”

In 1978 Bob re-located to a cabin at Te Rawa in the Pelorus Sound to set up his first longlines in Kauauroa Bay. The primary anchoring system at that time was 100kg Danforth anchor, which meant they needed resetting each time they were dragged by tide and weather. By this time, Bob and Julie were married. Julie joined Bob in the Pelorus, where they moved into a vacant farmhouse in Wilson’s Bay, something of a huge step for Julie with no road access or mains power.

“Despite the lack of knowledge and steep learning curve things looked really rosy for the first year or so,” Bob recalls, “with steady demand for the domestic fresh market supply as well as a new market for powder to the United States.” This ran into difficulties when the Food and Drug Administration rejected the Seatone product’s cure claims and banned sales. “Then the arse dropped out of everything. With everything having to go to domestic sales (no half shell then) we were getting next to nothing in sales, and what we were getting usually only covered harvesting costs.”

To earn a weekly pay packet, he took a variety of casual jobs such as working on harvesters and helping South East Bay identity Dick Codd with wharf and bridge building. Dick was an avid home brewer which required sampling on a regular basis!

In 1982 Bob and Julie shifted to their own home just out of Havelock, along with their relatively new son, Ryan. A couple of years later saw the arrival of their daughter, Taryn. The shift opened up other earning opportunities which resulted in many hours working, and learning, with Johnson’s Barge Service. Small contract jobs on mussel farms were also untaken with good friend Graham Hood. 

“Anything really to make a dollar to pay the mortgage. The farms took second place with farm work done on off days or weekends while the market re-established itself. It was during this period we had to sell one of our farms to maintain liquidity.”

“During the second half of the ‘80s it finally began to pick up.”

Initially the work was very manual. There were no cranes on barges. Harvested mussels were either in 20-25kg bags and then stacked on pallets set out on the barge or boat. When the now common bulk bag was first trialled, the sides of the bag were folded down and the mussels relayed to them manually by fish bin.

“Similarly, seeding single droppers presented the same challenges, load the table by hand, use gravity and hands to control load and speed, and repeat all day.”

“The guys now produce in a morning what we did in a week or more. They wouldn’t do what we did – they’d probably go on strike.”

He says there’s been great advances in vessels, equipment and technology which are welcome.

“We’d never want to turn back that clock on technology, but fundamental farming principles remain constant and easier is not always, necessarily better.”

“We’ve all made many mistakes over the years, that’s how we’ve learnt, the key is not to keep repeating the mistake. I often hear we should do this or that, but we had often experienced those stuff ups 20 or 25 years ago and I don’t see the need to repeat that error again.”  

Bob was first a member of the NZMFA Executive (now the MFA) in the 80s and says there were a lot of good characters active in the industry at this time. People such as Don Mitchell, the Yealands family, John Young, Jim Jenkins, Rob Pooley, Jim Goulding and Jim Jessep to name a few.  He’s made some life-long friends. MFA AGMs were initially held at various locations including the Havelock Town Hall. As the industry and MFA grew these morphed into the legendary three-day marathons at The Portage Hotel. “There was never a dull moment from the time you arrived Friday until you left Sunday. There was more life in the party than there is now, we want to go to bed too early these days.”

“There has been lots of very frank & healthy debate at industry meetings through some difficult times and it shows the strength of the MFA’s founding principles such as “one identity, one vote” and “working for the whole not the individual” that has given and will continue to give the MFA its longevity,” says Bob.

“I feel very privileged to have been on the MFA executive and been able meet and work with all the colleagues and staff over 30 odd years.”  

In 1987 Bob was introduced to United Fisheries founder Kypros Kotzikas through a colleague and fellow farmer Neil Perkins. The three formed a company as equal shareholders, initially with three farms. By the 1990s, United was looking to expand further and did so outside the original joint venture. Initially they continued to manage these interests, but by the mid 90’s, the decision was made to devolve the structure, and for United Fisheries to manage all of the marine farm interests with Bob appointed as Aquaculture Manager. Over the next decade Bob released his personal investments in the farms and focused solely on developing United.

He has now started to pull back on this role, moving away from operational & farm management to the oversight of resource consents, the Marlborough Environment Plan and development opportunities. “I’ve got one foot out the door now.”

Bob turns 70 next birthday and says it’s time to step back.

Despite the challenges ahead, he still sees a huge future for the mussel industry.  He acknowledges the contribution the MFA has made, not least in recent years, by defending farmers rights through the development of MEP and bringing a new focus on issues like improved environmental management and training.

Though new water space opportunities in the Marlborough Sounds are pretty well exhausted, he believes the opportunity to embed MEP, with its proposed modifications should see an era of stability that provides the base for investment into science, technology and diversity as opposed to litigation. This will see the Marlborough region remain the leading light in the sustainable operation of marine farming for the benefit of all. 

Bob is watching less sheltered offshore sites with some interest. “I know how difficult it can be in the Sounds and in the semi-enclosed Golden Bay (Ring Roads) site at times, so those more open water sites present some serious challenges.”

He says if the technology can be found, success on these sites can only be good for other local communities and the country.

“I don’t think we could calculate the individual or collective time, energy or resources that have been put into establishing the industry.” As an example, the Tasman Plan commenced developing around 1993 and first lines as result of that plan (on the Ring Road sites) never went into the water until 2008 – 15 years later. “I find these processes very frustrating and the hugely extended and exhausting process a waste of resources.”

“You’ve got to live a long time to see the end of it.”

“As with most things in life, we can only gain these experiences and successes with the support of your home base. Many a birthday and anniversary has been forgotten because of a meeting or work commitments without too much fuss, so it should be noted that the love and support from my family has allowed all these things to happen.”

After 43 years in an industry he loves, Bob Nicolle has helped a lot of good things come to pass within the marine farming industry. Even as he begins to wind back, he’ll continue to take an interest in our industry’s progress, in his quietly retiring way.