Sardines, pilchards, herring – the famous ‘Picton Bloaters’ were variously called all of these names. From earliest settlement there were huge seasonal shoals of them in Queen Charlotte Sound, close to the town, so a thriving industry was established as early as the 1870s.
Every few years huge numbers of the fish would strand themselves on the Picton shore, to the great disgust of the inhabitants. Local papers reported them as plagues, and they were dealt with by shovelling them on to punts and carting them out for dumping in the outer Sound. This dismayed the agricultural experts who believed they should be harvested as fertiliser.
Apparently when the shoals arrived in winter they were accompanied by huge flocks of gulls and gannets. In 1909 the Marlborough Express reported: “on Thursday last, during a high tide, large numbers of them found their way into the lagoon near the Domain bridge. Messrs Perano and Blake, fishermen, were on the alert, and each obtained a fine haul, so good indeed that several tons of fish were allowed to escape before the nets could be got ashore.”1
There were a number of businesses working the sardines in Picton. John Heberley (son of the original ‘Worser’ Heberley) was catching and curing them from about 1872. A Mr Turner had a cannery from 1880, as did Norgrove Brothers, who smoked the fish in brine and sent them to Thompson Bros. in Dunedin.
The Norgrove fish curing factory was on the western side of Picton Harbour, and employed three or four boats. About 1885 Agostino Perano moved his family to Picton from Port Chalmers on behalf of Thompsons, and took over their plant, building up an extensive business here. His family netted the sardines from rowboats, mostly within eight km of Picton.
The prime fish were smoked and sold locally – not gutted, just salted and strung on sticks and hung in the smokehouse. Smaller sardines were packed in wooden kegs and salted down. Later, John McManaway as a young man sometimes helped his brother who caught the fish for Brown Barrett’s cannery in Picton. “Just out in the Sound,” he told me, “and they had a big ring net and just set around the shoal. You’d see them at night time, because the fire in the water would show them up. Just set around this glow, and you’d get a hundred cases a night. This went on for years – beautiful fish. They only could take a hundred cases a night, and you’d shoot around a shoal and there might be two hundred cases in it. So you’d only dip out a hundred cases and let the rest go. They didn’t want to catch too many at once, because they were wasted.”
Are the big herring shoals still coming in? I asked this question at the Picton Department of Conservation office, and was told, ‘no one can remember seeing fish in Picton Harbour for many, many years in the quantities you are talking about.’
This story was originally published in the Seaport News (Picton)
Sources used in this story
- Picton (1909, August 3) Marlborough Express, p. 5
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Further sources - Picton Bloaters
- Brehaut, L. (2017, November 10) Heritage: Early industry in Picton. Marlborough Express on Stuff: