Fishing industry bids farewell to a giant

Nico Bacon, founder and former executive chairman of the Viking Fishing Group, which was sold to Sea Harvest in 2018, has died in Cape Town at the age of 89. True to character, the legendary fishing entrepreneur worked right up until three weeks ago when he fell ill with Covid-19.

Practical, down-to-earth and profoundly entrepreneurial, Bacon left his mark on virtually every industrial fishery in South Africa. His career spanned 52 years and over that period he worked closely with skippers and fishing crews to experiment with new gears or test the potential of underutilised resources. For example, in 1984 he worked with Spanish fishers to test a system for catching kingklip and hake by longline. Having failed with the Spanish single line system, he brought some fishers to South Africa from Portugal. They showed him how to use the double line system, the method of longlining that is still used in South Africa today to catch hake. Viking Fishing was also one of the first South African companies to successfully target horse mackerel, learning from the Polish fishers who pioneered the midwater trawl fishery in South Africa. To this day, Sea Harvest’s Viking Fishing Division is one of the few deep-sea trawling operations with the technology and expertise to employ a dual catch strategy, switching between the targeting of horse mackerel and the targeting of hake.

Bacon grew up in the coastal villages of Gordon’s Bay, Strand and Somerset West in the 1930s and ’40s. His parents owned Gordon’s Bay Fisheries and Bacon spent his early years in the company of small boat fishermen, learning to catch “silver fish” in False Bay. He told the story of how, at the age of eight, he was persuaded by a group of fishermen to go fishing in the late afternoon. When he got home after dark – with two kob in hand – he received a hiding from his traumatised parents who had no idea of his whereabouts and were sick with worry.

Bacon fished constantly while he attended the University of Cape Town, reading for a degree in mechanical engineering. He graduated with sore hands the day after the linefish boat that he worked on through the previous evening landed 600 geelbek. He recalled that he made enough money from that fishing trip to buy himself a blazer for his graduation ceremony.

At the age of 29, after a seven year stint as an engineer at the AECI explosives factory in Somerset West, Bacon took his first job in the fishing industry. He started working for A.P. du Preez who founded the Kaap Kunene Group (which later became Suiderland Fishing and is now Pioneer Fishing.) Although he had hoped to get a job as a manager in a fishmeal factory or a cannery, Du Preez made him shore skipper.

So successful was Bacon as shore skipper that after two years he was managing the nine boats that offloaded into Du Preez’s Da Gama factory in Hout Bay, plus another eight boats that offloaded into the other factory in Hout Bay – Sea Plant Products. And each year the three top pelagic catchers on the west coast were from the Da Gama fleet. When there was a fisherman short, Bacon used to go out on the boat himself.

Bacon joined I&J in 1968, at a time when the company’s antiquated steam trawlers were failing to compete against the massive Russian and Spanish factory trawlers that were fishing in South African waters at the time. He immediately embarked on a project to upgrade the company’s fleet. The first thing he did was to scuttle all 10 steamers. The first steamer he had to get rid of was called the George Irvin – the flagship of the I&J fleet, named after one of the founders of the company – but Bacon knew that the only way he could improve I&J’s catches was to modernise its vessels.

After catch rates improved in Cape Town, Bacon was appointed to the post of group fishing manager. His job was to manage I&J’s fishing operations in Walvis Bay, Cape Town, Mossel Bay, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

In 1980, Bacon parted company with I&J, borrowed R30 000 and started Viking Fishing with one trawler, the Benguela Viking. He used his car as his office and he went to sea for 10 days per month. When he returned to shore, he would sell the vessel’s catch. This practical, “hands on” approach stood him in good stead throughout his career and earned him a notable reputation in the South African fishing industry. Skippers and managers spoke about him with great respect, and many executives admired him as one of the hardest working people in the fishing industry.

His entrepreneurial spirit was legendary and Viking Fishing was one of the first fishing companies in South Africa to invest and diversify into aquaculture, or fish farming. Viking Aquaculture established abalone farms at Buffeljags on the Cape south coast and Kleinzee in the far Northern Cape, trout farms in the Cape winelands region and oyster and mussel farms in Saldanha Bay. Most recently, the company has pioneered the farming of ocean trout in sea cages in Saldanha Bay.

In 2016, when government allocated long-term rights to the hake inshore and midwater trawl fisheries, Viking Fishing suffered massive cuts to its quotas. In a bid to secure the jobs and livelihoods of the company’s 1 500 employees, Bacon sold out to Sea Harvest. His practice of consistently investing Viking Fishing’s profits back into the business paid dividends for the company’s employees who, as members of the Viking Fishing Staff Share Trust, received generous pay-outs from the Sea Harvest transaction.

Throughout his career, Bacon played a leading role in the management of the fishing industry. He had deep respect for fisheries science and served on fisheries advisory committees in both Namibia and South Africa. He also served many terms on the executive committee of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association and as chairman of the Midwater Trawling Association.

Although Bacon will be remembered as a giant of the South African fishing industry, he also won accolades for the establishment of Org de Rac – one of the first truly organic wine farms in South Africa. The farm produces a wide range of wines for the local and international market and is particularly renowned for the quality of its Methode Cap Classique.

Bacon had a tremendous affinity for the sea, and the people who work on it. Colleagues and friends will miss him for his no-nonsense approach to business and will remember him as a man of his word. He is survived by his wife, Wanette and his sons Grant, Peter, Craig and Neil.