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Stories from UOW

Rocco Ianni portrait

With just two commercial fishing boats operating out of Wollongong, researchers want to record the stories of the local fishing industry.

A sk Rocco Ianni what he might have done if he had not been a fisherman and a look of incomprehension passes over his face.

The Iannis have earned their livelihood through fishing for generations, first in Calabria, southern Italy, and then bringing their culture and practice to Australia after World War II.

We’re standing on the quay at Wollongong Harbour. It’s one of those perfect early winter days. Sunny with a touch of chill.

But it’s a little too windy to go out, so Rocco (everyone calls him by his first name only) is standing with a couple of other men, patiently threading a large needle to join two nets together.

He’s 75, but fit as a boxer and speaks with a pronounced Calabrian accent, despite living in Australia since he arrived in Kiama in 1957, when he was 14 years old.

Rocco Ianni portrait

Rocco Ianni has worked fishing boats from Wollongong since 1959. Photo: Paul Jones

Not an easy life

“You can’t give up fishing,” Rocco says. “We grew up with boats, lots of boats, lots of fishermen, and lots of sacrifice because there was no technology in those days.

“It’s not an easy life, but it’s a natural one. Water, bread, rowing. You grew very strong in the old days but now with a motor and all the modern technology, it’s much easier.”

His one regret, he says, is that he never went to school in Australia, going straight to work instead on his father’s boat, first in Kiama and then – since 1959 – operating out of Belmore Basin in Wollongong.

You can’t give up fishing ... It’s not an easy life, but it’s a natural one. Water, bread, rowing.

Rocco Ianni

“I feel sorry now that I didn’t go to school here, because I would speak better English, but the attraction of fishing took me away.”

Rocco is one of just two surviving commercial fishing boats operating out of Wollongong. It’s a long way from the 1960s, when the industry was largely unregulated and dozens of boats fished on the banks for high-value fish – snapper, tuna and kingfish.

The fact that Rocco is a survivor says something about his tenacity, but also something about his nose for good business.

Omega-3 to the rescue

Sick of being away from his family, his boat – the San Rocco Star – has fished for small pelagic fish for decades. These mackerel and yellow tail used to be sold for bait or cat food, but increasing awareness of the health benefits of Omega-3 has changed all that.

“It’s the doctor that discovered the mackerel. We can’t complain because we work hard,” Rocco says.

However attractive the life might seem on a sunny Monday morning, Rocco only has daughters and if they are not interested in joining the industry, what happens to the boat after Rocco retires (or more likely, dies) is anybody’s guess.

It turns out that people are really interested in local product but that it’s really hard to find. You may not even be able to get local fish and chips in some of these coastal towns, which is crazy.

Dr Michelle Voyer

The idea that an important part of our region’s history could be forgotten has helped motivate a team of University of Wollongong (UOW) researchers to kick off their Global Challenges project, which examines the Blue Economy through the prism of Rocco and his history.

Project leader Dr Michelle Voyer, a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, says the ongoing study will look at how we can make use of our oceans in a way that is environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive, while capitalising on the economic opportunities oceans provide.

“Rocco is an example – a case study. What are the stories behind him and how can those stories be used and become part of the product that he supplies?” Dr Voyer says. “What are the other opportunities that exist around the industry?”

The Blue Economy

Dr Voyer decided to begin the Global Challenges investigation into the Blue Economy with Rocco, because she knew she would be on safe ground. While working in her previous job at UTS, she had researched commercial fishing along the entire coast of NSW, and what it brought to their communities.

The study was partly economic, but also partly social.

“We used what we called the wellbeing framework, where we asked how commercial fishing contributes to community wellbeing,” Dr Voyer says. “We split it up into different things – food and nutrition obviously, but also whether people value a local product.

“It turns out that people are really interested in local product but that it’s really hard to find. You may not even be able to get local fish and chips in some of these coastal towns, which is crazy.”

Fishermen have always been the poor cousins to farmers, who have gained the attention for the challenges they face in terms of environmental change, drought and mental health.

Dr Michelle Voyer

There is no doubt that massively increased regulations from the 1970s onwards has not only succeeded in creating a fishing industry that is environmentally sustainable, but it has also contributed to a drop in fishing operations in Australia from about 4,000 licensed fishers in the 1960s to around 800 today.

“I think the industry is going through a really difficult transition but the tide is beginning to turn,” Dr Voyer says. “Fishermen have always been the poor cousins to farmers, who have gained the attention for the challenges they face in terms of environmental change, drought and mental health.

“Slowly the attention is now turning to fisheries, and at the same time, we’re getting strong concern about food security, trends in food sourcing, such as localism, the slow food movement, ethical food movements. People want to know that they are eating sustainable seafood and they want to eat local seafood.”

Rocco Ianni works one of just two surviving commercial fishing boats operating out of Wollongong harbour. Photo: Paul Jones

A fishing story, a migrant story

For a social researcher such as Dr Voyer, a character like Rocco is interesting because he embodies important, but little told stories. His is a migrant story as well as a fishing story, a Wollongong story, and a coastal story.

But there is also a sense that this is a story that needs to be recorded before it disappears.

“What’s really clear is that there is a huge history here, and if you want to plan well for the future, you need to be aware of what’s gone before.”

So in the tradition of a Global Challenges project, which looks at a problem across a range of disciplines, Dr Voyer has enlisted the help of documentary maker Sandra Pires. In August, Pires will launch a series of geo-located audio stories – including one on Rocco – called Yesterday’s Stories.

What’s really clear is that there is a huge history here, and if you want to plan well for the future, you need to be aware of what’s gone before.

Sandra Pires

The app will allow listeners to put on headphones and listen to the stories attached to a place, which currently includes includes Wollongong, Mount Kembla, the Southern Highlands, Moruya on the NSW South Coast, and Chinatown in Sydney.

“Rocco’s is a wonderful multi-cultural story because he arrived here when the Illawarra was quite mono-cultural and Anglo-Saxon,” Pires says. “We wanted to show people where and how their produce is caught, and the personal story around that history and as a different way of reaching tourists.”

Pires is also making an audio story on the next study to be taken on by the project, Aboriginal net fishermen in the Illawarra and on the South Coast.

Where everybody is thinking about new technology, and new ways of doing things, what happens to older ways of doing things? Photo: Paul Jones

‘It’s important that we don’t forget the history’

Associate Professor Michael Adams, a human geographer from the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, is also leading the project and says both stories will illustrate how ancient fishing cultures have survived by adapting to modern times.

“I am interested in the depth and intensity of vernacular knowledges,” he says. “In a globalising world, when we use big terms like Blue Economy, I want to discover what the human stories are that make sense of that.

“I am interested in the things that operate outside the spaces of formal political, economic and financial processes, which are institutionalised, structured and regulated across the board.

“All of us are interested in how that scaled interaction between global forces and the lived lives of ordinary people connect in different ways. Where everybody is thinking about new technology, and new ways of doing things, we shouldn’t forget the old technology.

“We may be able to learn from that. It’s important that we don’t forget the history.”

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