Cyclone Gabrielle: Hawke's Bay, Gisborne fishing industry faces challenge as debris renders areas unfishable

The Hawke's Bay and Gisborne fishing industry is feeling the impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle with large areas now unfishable due to mountains of logs and debris.

Newshub can reveal a new report from NIWA which shows some parts of the ocean have more wood than fish, and deep layers of silt.

Commercial fisherman Rick Burch has been working in Hawke's Bay's waters for nearly 40 years, and told Newshub that more than a third of the bay is now too dangerous to work in because of the amount of logs from the cyclone.

Boats have been hauling up piles of logs and debris from the ocean - a sight they've never seen before.

A pile of logs and fish on a boat.
A pile of logs and fish on a boat. Photo credit: Supplied

"We're too frightened to go in there in case we get logs in the net. The concern I have also is the effect of what was in that silt - the effect it will have on the ecosystem and the foodchain," said Burch.

Fellow fisherman Watene Spark shares those concerns.

"It's very scary at the moment," he told Newshub.

"There's that many logs in there, you're going to have a job catching your flounder quota. It rips up all your nets so more cost. It's very hard for the fishermen."

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To find out more, NIWA's carried out two research voyages in Hawke's Bay and Gisborne.

They've been analysing and mapping the sea floor, and taking core samples. They're trying to calculate how much of the millions of tonnes of silt, logs and debris has ended up in the ocean's ecosystem.

"A big proportion of that sediment would have made it out to the ocean, and the question now is where did it go?" said project leader Daniel Leduc.

The first voyage in April found changes in the contours of the seafloor, which they believe is linked to sediment flowing from the hillsides, down the rivers, and out to the ocean.

A silt-covered valley in Hawke's Bay.
A silt-covered valley in Hawke's Bay. Photo credit: Newshub

"Our job is to assess where the impacts have been felt and to what extent, particularly in vulnerable habitats and places where species like flounder and gurnard live close to the sea floor," he said.

It's tricky work, with poor visibility and a shortage of data from before the cyclone to compare to.

The most recent voyage in June revealed a 'mixed and puzzling picture', with some samples from areas like the Wairoa Hard showing high mud contents. However, in other areas like Pania Reef, the sediment build-up has cleared since April.

The Wairoa Hard, which hosts an important nursery for juvenile fish, has been an area of increased investigation and Leduc said they found a lot of wood debris and not many signs of life.

"We were expecting to see more fish and invertebrates from the sea floor, but what we got instead was wood and organisms associated with that wood," he said.

It's what Burch has been seeing too, and when he is catching fish, many of them are poisonous porcupine fish. It's the first time he's seen the strange sight, and believes it's because of the increase in logs in the ocean.

Porcupine fish.
Porcupine fish. Photo credit: Supplied

"They may be down there nibbling on bark of trees. Most of us have had severe catches of them," Burch said.

Meanwhile Spark is struggling to find any fish.

"There's that much silt, it's buried everything and the nursery for our species is gone, the logs buried them all. It doesn't look very healthy, what we see out there," Spark told Newshub.

And while he isn't catching his quota, the costs keep going up.

"It costs you a good $10,000 trip and you come home with $1000, it's very hard," he said.

Many, like Burch, are turning to a programme called First Mate, which offers mental health and financial support to those in the industry. It's unknown how long the recovery will take, but Burch is worried it could be years before they're back in what used to be rich fishing grounds.

"I think it's going to be a long long time until we get up there, it'll be a massive impact on finances for smaller boats like us," he said.

The recovery is expected to take some time, but fishermen want to see more research and data collection so they can get a clearer idea of what is happening beneath the surface.

NIWA is planning to head back to Hawke's Bay next month to continue its work, hoping the water isn't so murky so that they can get better images of the seafloor.

"The full picture takes time. But these are important areas to the community, so we want to bring everyone along on the process by sharing what we find as we go," said Leduc.