Port Lincoln’s old salt Terry Aldenhoven will spend his first summer on land after more than six decades heading out to sea for the fishing season.
He loved his fishing job so much that he’s only just retired at 78 and could still climb the mast of the tuna boat he skippered.
Mr Aldenhoven has clocked up 50 years fishing in the tuna industry and 63 years on the sea in total, but says you’ll still find him out on the water catching fish, although in a much smaller boat.
He’s seen more days on the water than any other tuna skipper in Port Lincoln and was witness to the highs and lows of the industry.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do this year, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time in my dinghy catching fish in the bay here because I just love the sea,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
“I say, ‘When I cut myself, no blood comes, just seawater pours out of me, I’m full of it.'”
Raised on the jetty
Born in 1945, Terry was raised on the salt air at Edithburgh, on South Australia’s southern Yorke Peninsula, across the road from a small fish factory and jetty, where about half a dozen full-time professional whiting, snapper and snook fishermen would unload daily.
“I grew up as a three, four-year-old running around under their legs as a kid,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
“I was annoying the fishermen, getting in their dinghies, getting told off.
“I knew by the time I was five or six I was going to be a fisherman.”
His mother raised him and his three siblings after his father “did a runner”.
“It was tough times because there was no pension for single mothers in those days, so she worked very hard to keep the family together and pay the mortgage,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
They were helped by generous community members and Mr Aldenhoven brought home bounty from the sea from an early age.
“When I was six or seven I was going down the main wharf and catching tommy ruffs and squid,” he said.
“When I was eight I asked the fishermen at the little wharf if they’d take me fishing and every now and again one of them would and I learned how to catch whiting.”
It was a natural progression onto the professional fishing boats.
At 15 he landed his first fishing job on Eric “Swogger” Altschwager’s rock lobster boat, the Britannia.
He’d pinch a dinghy to row out and pick up Swogger and his crew from their cray boat mooring from the time he could row at age 10 and an impressed Swogger promised him a job when he left school.
“When I started in 1960, crayfish [rock lobster] were one and threepence a pound, which is equal to 30 cents a kilo today,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
“Crayfish were cheap back then.”
There were also plenty of them.
“If we didn’t average three or four crayfish a pot we’d call it a disaster, now if they catch one crayfish a pot they reckon it’s great.”
Cowboys of the sea
It was while he was working on the Venture for Bob Astyn that he first came to Port Lincoln to try tuna fishing.
There were already about 24 local boats boosted by six more that came from Eden, New South Wales each summer, catching 20,000 tonnes of southern bluefin tuna annually.
“We’d heard about people making good money tuna fishing in Port Lincoln and we came over here in 1973 not knowing a thing,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
“I reckon after 10 years of tuna fishing I started to learn a bit – the first few years we were really cowboys.”
All the fish ended up in canneries.
“We were catching gold and selling it for dirt prices back in the day and then people started realising how much the Japanese liked their tuna,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
“Dinko Lukin pioneered sending fresh fish to Japan – catching them and freezing them and putting them in a container and sending them off to Japan and selling them fresh.”
From there tuna farming developed to value add to the quota.
“No more fish were landed on the deck of any boats because no fish comes out of the water anymore, they all swim home [towed by boats in ranching pontoons],” Mr Aldenhoven said.
He worked on about 10 tuna boats for various owners over the 50 years in the industry but spent 20 years on the Empris Lady, which was built during a government subsidy scheme to ramp up the industry to compete with Japanese fishers.
“Empris was the best boat that I ever worked on — she is a beautiful sea boat.”
It was one of 13 steel boats built during the subsidy scheme but the race to catch more fish nearly destroyed the fishery and quotas were introduced.
“We would have fished it to extinction if we hadn’t brought in some quotas and tough processes to make sure we didn’t kill the industry,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
But it was almost too late. The drastic catch reduction made fishing unviable.
“We had a 5,280-tonne quota, and we were used to catching 20,000 tonnes … and you’re putting them out for 80 cents a kilo or a dollar a kilo – it wasn’t viable,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
Japan was already farming tuna so the Australian industry developed its own ranching, feeding fish to fatten them to value-add on the market.
Mr Aldenhoven said he was proud to have brought in the first tuna for an experimental farm, which harvested 20 fish that had put on about 4 kilograms in weight, proving it was a viable prospect.
“The average size was 16kg, little, short, fat things and they sent them to Japan and we got 3,200 yen which is equivalent to $54 a kilo.
“All of a sudden, all the doomsayers were saying, ‘Wow.'”
Mr Aldenhoven, who retired in March, is worried the industry is now at another crossroads with tuna getting harder to catch.
“We’re catching most of our fish from here towards the Victorian border now, and this never happened, plus the size of the fish every year is coming down, down, down.
“The average size of the fish brought in this year might have made 10kg, go back five years ago and it was about 17kg.”
At peace on the sea
Mr Aldenhoven’s happiest days at sea were rack-poling tuna and filling the boat up.
But just being on the water was enough.
“The peacefulness of it, the cleanliness of it, the beautiful air out there and the ocean – I love the sea,” Mr Aldenhoven said.
“I used to get out of bed to go fishing and think, ‘Bloody beautiful, I’m off fishing.'”
Mr Aldenhoven said, despite his retirement, if he got a call from someone who needed a skipper he’d be back out at sea.
“I don’t think I’d be able to say no — I love it so much.”