Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh interviews Glen and Tracy Hill, environmentally sustainable fishers of the Coorong, near the Murray Mouth, SA.
“When you go out on the water, you’re in tune with nature. It’s emotional.” – Glen Hill
Tracy: Glen and I decided to call ourselves Coorong Wild Seafood because we were not only proud of what we do and how we go about things but we also wanted to let people know where we are and what we are. So then it was very important to all of us in our small community based fishery when, in 2008, we became only the third fishery in Australia and the twenty-seventh in the world to gain Marine Stewardship Certification for sustainable fisheries. And one of the reasons we were successful was that the environmental management plan we put forward was not only a first in the world but it now forms the basis for all environmental management systems in Australia. In fact, at one stage, the World Wide Fund for Nature was sending photocopies of it all over the world as an example of how things should be done.
But Glen and my success didn’t come easily.
For me it started back in 1975 when a girlfriend I went to school with at Callington used to come back from holidays with stories about this magical place called the Coorong. Her cousins had a shack down there and she used to describe the beautiful sandhills and all the wildlife and the fun she had going fishing. It sounded ideal. Then, when I was fourteen, my parents moved on to a dairy farm at Meningie. At that stage, with the dairy farm being near Lake Albert, I guess I had a closer connection with the lake than the Coorong but, none the less, those stories stayed in my mind.
So I went to Meningie Area School and did my Year 12 and after that I started as a junior at the Meningie branch of Bank SA. As I progressed through the bank I got married and we had two girls – Roxanne and Rachel. During that time my first husband and I joined the volunteer State Emergency Service. So I was working at the bank and doing radio and administration work in the SES in my spare time. I just thought it was something we could do together but, as things turned out, our marriage ended quite amicably, though needless to say it was still a difficult time to go through with two young children.
I enjoyed the SES so I continued on with that and that’s when a guy called Glen Hill turned up. Glen had gone through a marriage break-up as well and so we gravitated towards each other. I guess we used to cry on each other’s shoulders a bit but we soon found out that we had a very similar philosophy on life and things like that. At that time he’d just purchased a fishing licence.
Glen: I bought the licence off a bloke. It cost me $40,000, and for that I was the proud owner of a lot of trouble.
Tracy: The licence included the lot – fishing gear, everything. So he had a clapped out ute, a fairly old boat and the fishing gear he’d inherited was in desperate need of repair. The problem was, because he was still sorting out things with his marriage break-up, he couldn’t get a loan to buy any new gear. That was in about 1989 and, as it happened, at that time I was Relieving Manager at the bank and he came to see me. I knew he was a reliable guy so I approved a $2000 Bankcard for him.
Glen: This wasn’t really about getting new gear though. I was starting from well behind. This was just to cover my day-to-day survival.
Tracy: He was on the seat of his bum really, beavering away. So I sort of helped him get started, little knowing I’d ultimately marry him and we’d be running a successful fishery business together.
Glen: During those first years I was really just trying to sort stuff out. I’d grown up near Melbourne, so I was a bit of a city-slicker. And I was unsettled. I never stayed in a job for long. I just shifted around. Actually, the plan was to see Australia. I’d seen a fair bit of Victoria then a job came up over here at Meningie, on the dairy farm, so I came over. But dairying wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I went out fishing that it struck me, Hey, this is what I’ve been looking for.
I can’t describe that feeling really, but thinking back, I’ve got so many fishing related memories. I remember as a kid hanging onto a window ledge, looking in at a display of whole fish, and having to be dragged away. I even remember a time when I was fishing on the edge of a stinky, smelly old creek where boats were pulled up against the jetty. This was down near Portland and I just loved the smell of the bilge coming of these boats. It was … Hey I like this smell.
Perhaps I was born to it but, the thing was, it didn’t really hit me until I was about thirty-two. It took me a while. Anyhow, so I bought this fishing licence and on my first day out I went, How the hell am I going to get the boat in the water? I didn’t have a clue what I was doing because the guy I’d bought the licence off, he’d launched the boat here and he’d launched it there and he’d said, ‘See, it’s easy. This’s what you do and this’s what you don’t do.’ So I get down there and it took me half a day to find somewhere to put the boat in because the water was so low.
And, oh, you’ll get a kick out of this. The boat I had was a Stacer and, with a Stacer, the nose end is covered over and the back half is open. Now the problem with net fishing is that you sit down the back with the motor. So to pull your net up you’ve got to stop the motor, lift it up, then you’ve got to get up towards front and sort of get over the nose part to grab your net. But if you’re inexperienced, like I was, this all takes a little bit of time, especially if there’s a breeze. So to start with, what I was doing was, after I got the motor up, I’d be in such a rush to get up the front of the boat that I was tripping over everything. Then I’d take a leap on to the covered nose part and I’d skid across the top on my belly and I’d end up either hanging over the edge by my feet or I’d go straight over and into the water. Of course, everyone’s standing around laughing their heads off. ‘Look at Silly-Hilly’. Then after I got sick of being laughed at I wisened up. I got a precision piece of equipment, called an axe, and I chopped part of the nose out of the boat then I got a piece of piping made up that I could hang on to.
Tracy: One day he had this criss-cross pattern on his forehead. I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘Oh I was running up to the front of the boat and I tripped over a net and I hit my head’, and that criss-cross marking was from the beanie he was wearing. Oh, and the old Nissan ute he got, every time he went down the main street of Meningie the starter motor would break down and he’d to have to crank start the thing.
Glen: I really don’t need to revisit this, but she’s right; every time I went down the main street the bloody thing would stall. Nowhere else, just down the main street. People would hang round, leaning on door posts and stuff, waiting for the floorshow to begin. ‘Oh, here he comes.’ And that bloody car wouldn’t disappoint them.
Tracy: Anyway, so we got married and I was still working in the bank, then Glen came home from Adelaide one day and he said, ‘We’ve got to process our own fish.’ He said, ‘At the market I sold our fish for thirty cents a kilogram, then I went to the processors and they were selling the same fish – filleted – for $12 per kilogram.’
Glen: And that’s true. They even used to deduct their transport costs off my fish cheques. One day I actually got a bill because I didn’t get enough for the fish. And I’d fished hard. Twenty boxes a day was my average and I got a $1 a box bill.
Tracy: So we converted our 10 x 10 garden shed. We put panelling and an air-conditioner in. We had the filleting bench across the back. We had a double sink for washing and another bench for weighing them up – all in a 10x 10 shed – and that’s where we started processing our fish. Glen had taught me how to fillet, so I’d come home from working at the bank and I’d go out and help fillet fish.
Glen: I must say that’s one of the big things about all of this. There’s just so much to learn and I’ve taught myself everything, even how to fillet fish.
Tracy: And we all worked. When Roxanne was six she’d come out and stand on a fish tub and she’d wash the black lining off the bellies of the mullet or she’d be scrubbing the boxes. Then, with Rachel, I’ve got a picture somewhere of her, way back, when she was learning to fillet.
Glen: It was all net fishing and so what’s out there is what you catch. Generally, in the Coorong, we’ve got mullet, mulloway, flounder and black bream. In the lake we’ve got red fin, golden perch, carp and bony brim. Then there’s cockles and large mulloway on the ocean beach. So depending on where you’re fishing and what time of the year it is, and things like that, that’s what you go for. But the most prolific fish is the mullet as it’s around most of the year. As we needed a regular cash-flow, we figured that’s where we’d start.
Tracy: As for finding our market; where other people might try and undercut someone else’s customers, we took a more moral line. We don’t believe in stepping on people’s toes so when a guy was selling his delivery run in the Barossa Valley we bought it off him. And we did it all ourselves. Glen would be up at the crack of dawn and he’d be out catching fish two days a week. Then we’d all be out in the shed, late at night, processing. Then on a Thursday morning he’d head off to deliver them. From quite a small start, we built our market up to about 120 kilograms per week, which was pretty good for a guy who didn’t know what he was doing. But it was exhausting for him. Quite often I’d be sitting there waiting for Glen to come home and he’d be stopped on the side of the road having a sleep. He needed to.
Glen: I was really under the pump. I was going like the clappers.
Tracy: Then, over time, it became obvious that Glen needed more help. Once word is out that you have good quality fish and that you’re reliable, you start getting more orders. And, of course, as others got out of processing, we started to pick up their orders. Easter’s our peak time and one year we did 700 kilogram of mullet in the week. That was a hard slog because back then we were still in the 10 x 10 shed. So then in 1996, after eighteen years with the bank, I took a retrenchment package and I come to work full-time for the family business. It was nerve-wracking handing in that resignation letter because mullet go quiet for two or three months of every year and so I’d be going, ‘Oh God, the fish have gone.’ And so I’d go and get part-time work. Then I started to get confident that we were going to do alright. By then we’d built our house and we’d built a bigger processing shed. So I hadn’t had a job outside the business for about six or seven years, then the drought came. And that was okay but when the drought broke and the water flushed down the river, into the Coorong, the mullet said, ‘We don’t like this’, and they zipped off, and for six months we virtually had no mullet. And that was tough. Economically, we were looking extremely precarious. Then the local bank manager went on twelve months maternity leave and they took me back, for the third time, and that’s what kept the groceries on the table while Glen continued fishing. We were very lucky.
Glen: In the middle of all this I’m in deep moral turmoil. See, we take the people we employ very seriously. We could have up to six people working here with us and we feel responsible for their livelihoods. It’s also hard to replace good people if they leave, so we decided to keep everyone on our pay-roll.
Tracy: We also class ourselves as employees. Our business is a company and the company employs us. Glen’s got a deckhand. He’s from Riverland Fishery. He had a fishing licence for over twenty-seven years up there until the political forces came and shut the fishery down and so now he’s been working for us for about five years.
Glen: With Riverland Fishery, eighty percent of the fishermen that lost their jobs ended up with some form of mental illness issues. Eighty percent. That gives you an indication of how well that whole process was handled. What people don’t realise is that fishing’s not just a job; it’s not even just a job. It’s more than that. It’s your whole life. When you go out on the water, you’re in tune with nature. It’s emotional.
Tracy: Fishermen are born to be fishermen.
Glen: Now I’d just like to go back to something very important. It’s about Tracy’s daughters. Being a family business they’ve had to put up with us being seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day fishers. We live and breathe it. So you can imagine how your usual type of kids would react. ‘It’s cold. I don’t want to go back out in the shed, filleting’ or ‘Oh you’re always on about fishing’ or ‘We’re sick of fishing’. They just wouldn’t want to get involved. But those two girls were always out there helping and they rarely complained. So that’s what type of kids they are. Roxanne’s now twenty-three and I’d go as far as to say that Rachel, who’s twenty-eight, would be able to operate just about every component of our business.
Tracy: See, when I was a kid, Mum and Dad weren’t exactly flush with money and I worked on the family dairy farm virtually for nothing. So right from day one I put my girls on wages. I just wanted to make sure they felt that they weren’t out there slaving away for nothing. Yes they did have to work hard but, by the time they left school, they had a few thousand dollars in the bank. And that’s one thing I’ve always said, ‘No matter what happens, I’m hoping we’ll always have a job here for you girls.’
Glen: As to the future I’ve got to be honest and say that, at times, I’ve stood in a howling dust storm, in what had been some of the best fishing ground in the lake, and I was bawling my eyes out. I was going, ‘What’s the point. These conditions are forever. The water’s never going to return. What have we got in the future? Nothing.’ So while I don’t think the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is much of a plan, it’s all we’ve got at the moment. But I just can’t see that, what’s going to happen further upstream is ever going to make that much difference. But at least we’ve got a plan – a starting point.
Tracy: This was back when the lake bed was almost dry and the wind was blowing sand everywhere. We were tearing our hair out. We thought, If we have one more year of this we might have to give our business away. Then the rain came and, while it temporarily put a bit of a spanner in the works as far as the mullet go, we’re now probably going to have one of the best mullet producing years we’ve seen for a long time. The Coorong’s never been in as good a health since we started fishing. Glen came home one day and he said, ‘See this. See this.’
I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Look, it’s weed. This was down South Lagoon and it hasn’t been there for years. It’s the beginning of a revegetation.’
Glen: See, various fish need different things. Take mulloway for example; they don’t necessarily breed in the Coorong. Mulloway tend to breed out on the continental shelf and the drift of the current drifts their eggs into shore. Look at it this way; out in the ocean a shark’s not going to eat fish eggs, is it? It’s got better stuff to eat and also, the chances of birds picking up the eggs are pretty slim. So that environment gives the eggs a chance to hatch. You don’t necessarily need science, you need logic. Then something like the flounder are a much more confined type of species, so they’ll breed inside the Coorong.
Tracy: And brim and flounder need a certain salinity in the water to breed.
Glen: Exactly. If the water’s completely fresh, the fish eggs would sit on the bottom where they’d be subject to degradation from crabs and all sorts of bottom-dwellers plus, they wouldn’t get enough sunlight. Then, if the water’s completely salty, the fish eggs would float on top where they’d get sun-damaged and the birds would pick them off. What you need is for the eggs to float about mid-water, and that’s why you need regular fresh water coming down the river which causes a layering effect.
Tracy: When I first went out in the boat with Glen he showed me where the fresh water line was and I could actually see it. There was an interface area.
Glen: Someone said, ‘The Coorong is the Coorong because it is the Coorong’ , and they’re absolutely right. It’s grown up being the Coorong and the fish that are in the Coorong are part of the Coorong and the nature that’s all around it. Now, for a complete cycle of breeding, some fish need about six weeks. So when the water’s just at the right salinity level – ‘bang’ – off everything goes, doing its own thing, and six weeks later there’s a new set of fish. So then, I ask you, how can this happen when you’ve got a set of barrages down there that they open and shut gates at the drop of a hat? They say, ‘Oh, it’s the weekend. We’d better shut the gates.’
So with no flow of fresh water, what then happens to the breeding cycle? See, nobody’s looking at the environment first. That’s the bloody problem. Just because it’s the weekend they go and shut the gates. That’s not really the fault of somebody being greedy and taking too much water upstream. It’s a case of bureaucracy gone wrong. And something else, everyone blames commercial fishing for the loss of fish stocks. Not long ago they did a study on the threats and the mortality of various fish species and the results showed that recreational and commercial fishing formed just one percent of the threat to their mortality. Just one percent. Coming in at Number One and Number Two, at eighty percent, was habitat degradation and pollution. When you think about it, it strikes you straight away. Just look at what’s happening around the edges of Australia where we’re ripping out mangroves and damaging our foreshores to build towns and cities. We’re changing the foreshore, and that’s what’s threatening fish stocks. In the Coorong we’re at the end of a river system – we’re at the interface between the land and the water – and so we fishers, when we witness the degradation and the loss of habitat from all the coastal development, we think, Look, what’s going on? We’re hell-bent on wrecking our environment. And we are.
Tracy: And every day that Glen goes out fishing he doesn’t know what to expect. So when a hundred percent of your income is reliant on that water and the environment being healthy, that’s why I am so passionate about sustainability. We’ve even put on solar power because we want to be environmentally responsible. We catch our own rainwater. We buy four-stroke motors because they’re better for the environment. All our fish-waste goes for blue crab or rock lobster bait. The only thing we dispose of is the scales. Everything else is utilised. Together, Glen and I have worked extremely hard to try and make our business as environmentally friendly, responsible and as sustainable as possible. And we don’t just talk about it, we do it, we live it and we work for it, day in, day out.
** In 2009 Glen Hill won Leading Seafood Producer at the South Australian Seafood Industry Awards. At the SA Seafood Awards of 2011, Glen and Tracy were recognised as the state’s top small seafood business. Coorong Wild Seafood also won the Small Business Award in the Murraylands and Riverlands regions at the 2011 Advantage SA Regional Awards.