‘Not work,it’s a passion’:Pro fisherman Santo still hooked at 101

Sicilian-born fisherman Santo La Macchia hoped to begin his 101st birthday on Tuesday doing what he loves best:trawling for squid and prawns.

Australia’s oldest commercial fisherman,and his son – “Young Bobbie”,75 – planned to have left their mooring in Avalon’s Careel Bay about 1pm on Monday,pointing their 70-year-old trawler Joyce towards the prime squid fishing waters off Patonga on the Central Coast.

Fisherman Santo La Macchia (right),who turns 101 on Tuesday,with his son and skipper “Young Bobbie”,75.

Fisherman Santo La Macchia (right),who turns 101 on Tuesday,with his son and skipper “Young Bobbie”,75.James Brickwood

Once night falls,they turn Joyce (named after Santo’s late wife) back to the estuarine waters at the mouth of Broken Bay,celebrated for its large,succulent School prawns.

“We like to do the afternoon shift,” explains “Young Bobbie” (to distinguish him from Santo’s late father who started the fishing dynasty in 1924).

“We do a couple of shots for squid and trumpeter whiting at Patonga,then head out the front in Broken Bay. We work until midnight.

“We can’t leave Broken Bay much later otherwise we wouldn’t get the catch down to Sydney Fish Markets in time for the auction at 5.30am.”

Father and son are back at the mooring at 1am. Getting to and from Joyce and the jetty,via a dinghy,can be a struggle. But Santo has developed his own gymnastic technique involving his backside and his good knee (he hasn’t been able to walk unaided since “my late 80s”).

Yet – incredibly – as soon as his son has finished loading the catch into the dinghy,the centenarian rows back to the quay in the dark.

“It’s the way he prefers it,” the son explains. “I row to the mooring and he rows back. By the time we get out of the dinghy,it might be 1.30 or 1.45am.”

Once the catch is loaded into the back of their ute,they drive the 42 kilometres to the fish market,arriving about 3am so Bobbie can sort the prawns from the crabs,the squid from the whiting and label the various weighed seafood to be left in separate boxes on the auction floor.

“Sometimes I drop Dad off home,but he thinks that’s a waste of time,” says the younger La Macchia. “Usually he comes to the market too.”

‘When I am fishing I feel more bright. I like to see the other boats and feel the freedom of the water.’

Santo La Macchia

By the time they get home to Beacon Hill,it’s usually 4.30am – a long shift for anyone,let alone a centenarian.

“I love to go fishing,” Santo says in his thick Italian accent. “It’s my life. It’s not work,it’s a passion. When I am fishing I feel more bright. I like to see the other boats and feel the freedom of the water.”

Santo La Macchia on his boat Joyce,named after his late wife.

Santo La Macchia on his boat Joyce,named after his late wife.James Brickwood

This time last year,when he turned 100,he received congratulatory messages from the Queen,the Governor-General,Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then-NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian. This birthday,the celebrations will be quieter – spent with a few family and friends.

The older La Macchia began fishing for sardines,anchovies and mackerel as an eight-year-old,taught by his grandfather and uncles back in Sicily. His father,Bartolo (promptly renamed “Bobbie” by Anglo-Saxon crewmates) had come to fish in Sydney Harbour in 1924 – eventually saving enough money to bring the entire family out to Sydney in 1937.

At 17,Santo’s first job was in a Neutral Bay fruit shop. “But I got the sack after a week because I couldn’t serve the customers,” Santo recalls. “I couldn’t speak English.”

From then on,he’s spent his entire life as a commercial fisherman,sometimes with his father and brother Joe.

His working life is a personal history of Sydney’s fishing industry. For many years he and his father divided their time between trawling for prawns in the Parramatta River and long lining outside the heads for schnapper,but with redfish and deep sea bream also caught on the long lines.

“I haven’t long lined for over 50 years,” the old man admits. “It’s too dangerous being three miles out to sea,especially if the lines get caught.”

Santo ordered Joyce in 1951 from a Sydney boat building firm in Berrys Bay. “Most fishing boats were built on spec then,” the son explains. “If you wanted to become a fisherman you just selected the boat you wanted and went to the fisheries department and got a licence.

“Now if you want to get into the industry you need to buy another fisherman out.”

Santo knew exactly what he wanted. Joyce is 24 feet long with a nine-foot beam,and made of Spotted Gum hardwood below the water line and softwood above. He quit Sydney Harbour in 1967 (“It was too busy”) and brought Joyce up to Pittwater – first based at Newport,then Palm Beach and since 1974 at her current mooring in Careel Bay (though trawling isn’t allowed within Pittwater itself).

“Young Bobbie” joined his father on Joyce in 1972,and now trawler,licence and trading company are in his name.

So which of them is skipper? “He is,” says Santo,pointing at his son. “But sometimes,when he does something wrong,I’m the skipper.”

How long they can remain in business is questionable.

“I consider myself lucky we’re still allowed to go fishing,” Bob confesses. “They closed Botany Bay to commercial fishing in 2002. Then they closed Sydney Harbour in 2006.

“Broken Bay may be next. It’s all political. We’re not wanted here by the recreational fishermen.

“It cost me $10,000 in 2017 when the Department of Primary Industries brought in a new licensing system which means I had to buy another 50 fishing shares from another fisherman who was leaving the industry.

“There’s no guarantee the rules won’t change again.”

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Steve Meacham is a freelance writer.

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