Crayfish and Polo

April 2022

A Kaikoura crayfishing family who also have a hill country farm and now a ‘field of dreams’ polo ground.

Cray-fisher John Reader has survived just about everything the ocean could throw at him, from upheaval in crayfish management, to the 2016 ‘quake that ravaged the Kaikōura coastline. Operating from Waipapa Bay near Waiau Toa / Clarence River, he and his family have a hill country farm and now a ‘field of dreams’ polo ground as well.


At 17, Johnny was a crewman in Cook Strait and at Cape Campbell, at the southern end of the strait. He then did a season in Fiordland, where he ended up doing a deal with his employer to secure a 20-foot, 60 cray pots and a bulldozer. He was owed wages and these prize assets were partly in lieu of the money owing, though John still had a loan to pay off about $10,000. This was a fair but of money 40 or so years ago, but he paid off the debt by landing crays.


Between 1980 and 1987 he worked as hard and efficiently as he could to pay bills and keep his head above water. It was a time of ‘open season’ – you could catch as many crays as you wanted – but that all changed in 1980, when authorities stopped issuing new permits.


Then came the Quota Management System for all crayfish in ‘87. For fishers like Johnny, who fishes out of Waipapa Bay, near Waiau Toa / Clarence River, it was a make-or-break moment. At that time, Johnny’s equivalent ‘quota catch’ was 16 tonne. The QMS cut that overnight to a relatively paltry 7.5T – a drop of 57%. It was a question of trying to ‘hang in’ while the regime bedded in, he says.


One of the designated QMS crayfish areas, ‘Cray 5’ between Farewell Spit and Waitaki River, was a cray-fishing hotbed and many cray fishermen sold up. There used to be over 100 operating out of Cray 5; now it’s about 24, Johnny says.


As a survivor and successful fisherman, Johnny proved to be an ‘odd one out’ in the QMS upheaval. Other fishers leased quota from the big companies, which had most of the quota. Johnny, supported by his wife Tonya, maintained share, and managed to find a spot in the market below the big boys. He now owns 21 tonne of cray quota, fished in areas of the coast between Cape Campbell and Timaru.


Johnny’s game is cold-water crayfish, all sold to China. These live crays can fetch up to $130/kg and a premium of $15/kg on comparable foreign catch. Chinese are very big on colour, and New Zealand crays seem to tick all the boxes, he says.


But for all that potential gain, the cray market can be fickle. In China, for example, business can be shut down overnight ‘at the stroke of a pen’. When Covid-19 changed the world, crayfish were among the first New Zealand exports to suffer as restaurants shut.


Big fishing companies lost a lot of stock but fortunately the Readers had caught all their cray quota for the year – in the last three days of January 2020.


Johnny has two boats and two crew, operating a 60-footer out to sea and a jet boat for in-shore catch. It’s a family operation, from land to sea, including the polo.


Eldest son Ash runs ‘Meriburn’, a 250ha hill and flat plateau property which Johnny bought in 1991. That year Johnny also moved his crayfishing launch operations from Kekerengu to Waipapa Bay, an area used for commercial fishing activities since the 1940s. Ash explains the farm is designed to be ‘easy care’, as the main business focus is on crayfish. There is also a 350-hectare (mainly forestry) block on the seaward side of the road that now is home to an international-size polo ground.


At Waipapa Bay Ash also crews one of his dad’s vessels, working alongside brother Jack, a fulltime crayfisher with lease quota and some of his own as well. Daughter Zoe recently finished university and is about to head off to England for polo.


The Readers farmed beef before the quake and still do – and they’re also into horse-breeding for polo ponies. The polo field was a product of Ash’s quick-thinking, a result of repairs to State Highway One and the Main Trunk Rail in the 2016 Hurunui Kaikōura Earthquakes. Alert to opportunity, Ash solved a problem for the reconstruction team – they needed a place to put their fill.


Johnny started following polo when his daughter and two sons took it up at boarding school in Christchurch.  Having a home field spares the family from some of the relentless, expensive travel required to play the sport at venues around the South Island. Once fully developed, it has the makings of an international-class facility, he says. Ash was determined in the choice of turf on the field, despite misgivings from some quarters, as it is rare to see it grow well at this latitude. He explains couch grass is the gold standard of polo surfaces and has the advantage of growing in sand, as opposed to having to truck in expensive topsoil. It also drains quickly after rain, so training or playing is not as disrupted. And, despite the doubters, he is pleased with the result to date.


Ash is also responsible for managing the Karaka Lobster café sited on state highway 1 just north of Kaikōura, along with help from Tonya, Zoe (when she’s at home) and locals. Ash says it is a bonus to be able to provide high quality, fresh crayfish directly to customers.


Like most of the Reader family projects, you suspect there’s a lot more to come. For now, though, it’s testament to Johnny’s style and approach that he and Tonya have instilled in the rest of the family: as fishers, farmers, and sportspeople, with a knack for making things happen.