A voice for fishers

Chance transformed Fritz Drenkhahn from electrician to commercial fisher, while love of the job ignited a desire to help secure a long-term future for the fisheries sector

By Annabel Boyer

Fritz Drenkhahn in Eden.
Photo: Annabel Boyer

The house where Fritz Drenkhahn lives with his wife, Jen, sits on a slope that overlooks Snug Cove at Eden, on the NSW south coast. As we sit and chat over a cup of tea, the seas where he has spent most of his life reflect the grey of the sky, and the smell of the salt and the sound of the surf rise up from the twin bays below.

It also becomes clear that the twin themes of fishing and community have been an integral part of Fritz Drenkhahn’s life.

He credits his time as fisher and as a skipper with giving him the tenacity to pursue the community interests he holds dear, including those of the fishing industry.

“It’s the challenge of the elements,” he says. “If you give in, and walk away, you’d never make a skipper, because you can’t give in, you can’t walk away, a challenge is a challenge.”

That tenacity also proved crucial when it came to negotiating with government over the future of fishers and fishing, as president of the South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association (SETFIA), during a turbulent period of restructuring.

Sea change

German-born, Australian-grown, Fritz Drenkhahn worked as a fisher for more than 30 years, mostly in the South East Trawl Fishery. Although he likes to say that he started fishing when he was just five years old, he became a fisher by chance, when on leave from his first career as an electrician working in steelworks and mines.

“In about 1978 or ’79, one of my friends had a boat in the Wollongong Harbour and I was on annual leave from Paraburdoo. He was going fishing regularly and I was joining him."

“One of the fishermen there – Neil Kelly who owned the Belbara at the time and was a pioneer in the Royal Red Prawn fishery – his crew didn’t roll up. He asked if we could give him a hand.”

Fritz Drenkhahn admits he was hooked from that point on. Within six months he was fishing for gemfish in Eden. He became part-owner of the Imlay and has skippered four other vessels at various times, fishing for all of the 30 species in the South East Trawl Fishery in waters from Sydney to Hobart. “It can be very stressful; a skipper is only as good as his last catch. But I love fishing and I love catching fish,” he says.

In the 1990s Fritz Drenkhahn worked collaboratively with researchers, allowing observers on his boats. This work resulted in more reliable stock assessments and a better understanding of the catch rates for target and bycatch species in the South East Trawl Fishery.

Changes in technology such as GPS chart plotters have made fishing easier, but also brought new challenges, he says. Easier because you know where you can and cannot go, more challenging because having more information means there are more options to fish further afield, and you take them.

New types of net material and codend designs developed through FRDC-funded research projects have also made fishing more efficient. “If you increase the mesh sizes, the selectivity of what you retain is so much better,” he says.

After 20 years on the water as a full-time fisher, Fritz Drenkhahn began to wind down his commitments and became involved with SETFIA.

Time to talk

“Because I have a passion for the industry and am dedicated to the trawl fishery I went with Lochie Marshall, who was another fisherman, to a SETFIA meeting, some time in 2000, and I kept going ever since.”

One of the real challenges for fishers becoming involved in industry organisations is simply having the time to be involved, he says. He continued to fish while president of SETFIA by organising a job-sharing arrangement where he would skipper his boat one week out of four.

He says fishers are on the water every day, but very often their needs, views and experience are overlooked. For this reason it’s vital that they continue to participate in industry organisations.
He was president of SETFIA for seven years, at a dramatic time in fisheries history. The Commonwealth and Victorian governments had designated marine parks and were looking at restricting fishing quotas. Fishing grounds had also been overfished, and making a living was becoming an increasingly difficult proposition.

Something needed to change. The question was how this transition would affect the fishers. For more than a year Fritz Drenkhahn and Gail Richey (then executive officer of SETFIA) travelled extensively, representing SETFIA. He says they were regularly visitors to Parliament House in Canberra, putting proposals to ministers,sitting down to work out arrangements. Eventually this persistence and hard work paid off, with the Commonwealth government offering a generous buyout scheme in 2006 that covered four fisheries. The buyout resulted in the removal of half the licences from the South East Trawl Fishery.

“We had to get rid of a few cowboys,” Fritz Drenkhahn says. “Also, we had a lot of ageing skippers, who had ageing boats, and the buyout was their super. It let them leave the fishery with a bit of dignity and enough to retire, or help retire.

“SETFIA drove it and to be part of that, in my life, was a brilliant achievement.”

After the fishery restructuring Fritz Drenkhahn says he was very optimistic about the future of the fishing industry around Eden. The number of vessels taken off the water meant those who remained could expect to make a decent living.

But he has been surprised that quotas haven’t changed to reflect that. Looking back, if he could change one thing, he says it would be to push for greater equality in different jurisdictions and fisheries, so that fishers fishing in the same waters have the same rights and responsibilities.

Working together

If fishers want to be heard they have to be involved, Fritz Drenkhahn says.

“If you sit at the table with your enemies or your friends it doesn’t matter, but you have to have a say. If you don’t sit at the table you don’t have a say and you just have to wear what’s thrown at you.
“I’m not the sort of person that stood for that. I like to have my say. You get to control your own destiny and the destiny or future of your industry.”

Over the years there have been many industry changes driven by regulation. Fritz Drenkhahn can see two sides to this coin. On one hand he believes that regulation for crew safety is important and skippers need to take that responsibility seriously.

“Being a skipper you’ve got two things to do, you go to sea and you’ve got to come back with your crew alive and catch fish and that’s the two main things and what happens in between can be adventurous, dangerous, all extremes.”

On the other hand, many of the regulations have unforeseen consequences, he says. The resourcefulness required to make a living out on the water can be stifled by the inflexibility of regulations. He talks about the old days when the trawl fishers used to work with the cray fishers to supply bait while fishing in Tasmanian waters, particularly around Flinders Island, and everyone benefited.

“You would get up at six in the morning and there’d be four boats alongside you and all the crew from the cray boats’d come and give you a hand while you are cleaning grenadier for market. They were boxing up the heads and taking the heads for cray bait. And now that’s frowned upon by government departments.”  

Now retired from commercial fishing, Fritz Drenkhahn still likes to fish three times a week, mainly for ling, snapper and trevalla. However, his commitments to the Eden and fishing communities continue to eat into his recreational fishing time.

He is in the thick of local debate about the development of a new wharf on Twofold Bay that would allow cruise ships to visit. He brings out aerial photos of the wharf, competing plans for the development, letters and other documents, which suggest an alternative proposal he feels would be more efficient, with fewer environmental impacts.

“You can sit on your bum and do nothing and just go fish and ignore everything. But then when you see what happens around you, you say, well no you can’t have that happen, there are better avenues and better ways to do things,” he says.

FRDC Research Code: 1998-204