Kaipara-caught yellowbelly flounder cooked in butter, lemon, capers and curry leaves from kingi. Photo / Supplied

Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Seafood?

Meet the chefs championing the concept, and a new fishing model that aims to provide quality produce for all New Zealanders

Sustainable fishing is a noisy topic and the confusion around it has many thinking that they should stop eating fish. With 15,000km of coastline, seafood is a natural resource in New Zealand, and harvesting kaimoana is part of our DNA.

We should be eating fish, we just need to understand why our fish supplies are declining, and that we can repair the damage done by being aware of how our fish is caught.

Leading chefs work hard in this space, sourcing fish directly from independent fishers who use hooks, lines and spears to catch only what’s required. Many hero their suppliers on the menu to assure diners of quality.

Tom Hishon created his Auckland restaurant, kingi, with sustainable fishing in mind. His mission, through the selection of fish on the menu, is to demonstrate that a seafood restaurant can be completely ethical, showcasing local kaimoana and supporting the environment it has come from. kingi’s suppliers are carefully selected and any company that supports trawling practices will not be purchased from.

Tom says he’s just doing his bit to create more awareness among diners and the fishing industry, and trying to be part of the change that New Zealand needs urgently to maintain healthy fish stocks.

When it comes to fish, Tom doesn’t do favourites. He enjoys the diversity of species. “I love what the warmer months bring to our waters as much as the cold ones. As an industry there needs to be closer monitoring or restrictions around when the fish are spawning to take the pressure off and let them reproduce to increase biomass and biodiversity.

Fried Chatham Island blue cod wings from Auckland restaurant kingi. Photo / Supplied

A favourite on the kingi menu, and one of the most sustainable out there, is a whole yellowbelly flounder caught in the Kaipara Harbour, cooked in butter, lemon, capers and curry leaves.” Chatham Island blue cod wings are highly regarded at kingi, marinated overnight in buttermilk and fried to produce a crispy, succulent, finger-licking experience.

At Blenheim’s Arbour, chef and owner Bradley Hornby completely focuses his menu on seasonal, local produce. “We use what’s around us and have developed amazing relationships with the artisans and producers whose products guide what we cook, and that keeps me excited and invigorated,” Bradley says.

“Up until a couple of years ago, outside of locally grown shellfish, seafood was the only product the kitchen wasn’t sourcing direct, or had close contact to where it was coming from. Legislation had us sourcing seafood through a bigger company who our fishers had to sell to, but changes have seen the reinvigoration of smaller fishers and harvesters.”

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Ocean Speared’s Tim Barnett has a special permit from MPI to spear butterfish at the top of the South Island. Tim supplies Arbour and Bradley recounts a “humbling” conversation with Tim about his ikejima spike. Ikejima is considered the most humane way of killing fish and, along with an ice slurry, gives a better-quality fish, but for Tim spiked fish also means less trouble from sharks.

“It put everything in perspective,” says Bradley. “I was standing in my kitchen demanding the best quality, while he was out there chasing his dream, trying to keep his business going and dealing with the threat of sharks and predators.

“We have this massive disconnect with our food chain, but the cool thing about a restaurant like ours is that we have the ability to tell Tim’s story, or Troy [Smith]’s from Imersion Fishing, or Cloudy Bay Clams or the people diving for paua, which helps their businesses.”

Nate Smith from Gravity Fishing. Photo / Supplied

Tim is working with MPI developing a framework that will make it possible for him to target other species, for others to spear fish commercially, and to change the way we harvest fish from our waters.

Arbour generally have two to three courses based around seafood and, because the restaurant is small, Bradley says they can do a tasting menu which he can change on the day depending on supply.

“Based on seasonality, if we’re not using Tim, we’ll use Troy who supplies hapuku line-caught in the Strait. If they are impacted by bad weather we won’t run fish for that period. It’s been empowering to see how people react when we explain that. Most are very appreciative.”

Bradley’s local Cloudy Bay Clams have a very sustainable way of harvesting, and they boast “the cleanest shellfish in the country”. He utilises blue-shell mussels, which are a pest because they seed on the lines of farmed green-shell mussels, which Bradley considers an overlooked food source for New Zealanders.

“They’re delicious, we have amazing access to them, they’re extremely good for you and just like clams they are easy to cook. Mussels are bivalves which filter water to get nutrients, (phytoplanktons), so what mussels and in a lot of cases oysters do, is make the water cleaner. In France they have started using mussels and oysters to clean up a lot of polluted waterways. How amazing is that?”

New Zealand’s seafood story isn’t complete without Fleur’s Place in Moeraki, where Fleur Sullivan has been serving kaimoana in the most charming and humble of ways for 20 years. She is in the fortunate position of owning her own quota, obtained at great expense over the decades, which the local boats harvest for her.

Fleur opened the restaurant naive to the challenges of obtaining locally caught fish but now works happily alongside local commercial fishers.

Any decent eatery will happily share their sources and catch methods with diners if asked. Things aren’t that easy when it comes to home cooking where, unless there’s a fisher in the family or over the fence, most rely on supermarkets where kaimoana comes with little traceability.

Good news comes in the form of Nate Smith whose Gravity Fishing operation supplies top chefs and restaurants throughout New Zealand. Nate, who won the Emerging Leader Award at the Seafood Sustainability Awards 2020, is a man with a plan that’s about to come into place.

The plan takes the Southland-based Gravity Fishing model to a national scale, giving all New Zealanders access to fresh, sustainable and ethically caught fish at realistic prices. “Like you’ve caught it yourself,” says Nate.

Off the back of the awards and with confidence that MPI was happy with Gravity’s procedures, Nate applied for funding. After a year-long process that has seen him temporarily hang up the hooks and diversify Gravity into tourism experiences to generate money, he’s hoping to get the green light
in November.

Fleur Sullivan, owner of iconic Moeraki eatery Fleur’s Place. Photo / Craig Baxter

The model ensures fishers and harvesters remain independent, working their own businesses under their own brands. Creating another seafood corporation is not what Nate is about; he understands what these fishers need to ensure fulfilling and successful businesses and that’s the infrastructure he will provide.

Over six years of Gravity Fishing, Nate has learnt that logistics and packaging are the costly components, so he’s created a model that provides harvesters with quota, access to packing facilities and a fair amount of his IP.

“We want to make it easy for harvesters to go out, catch fish and sell it direct, to whoever they want to.” Nate’s keen to get back to his hooks and will only act as mentor to the participating businesses. “I’ll jump on their boats, show them how to handle and pack the product and be in the background if they need me.”

Nate’s excited to have found a way to ensure home cooks can access quality seafood at an affordable price.

READ: Home Grown: A Celebration Of New Zealand's Incredible Produce

“This has been a problem in our country for 30 years. The middleman setup has pushed the price up and it’s completely ridiculous. Right now, you’re looking at between $50 to $70 a kilo to buy decent fish from the supermarket. Fish will be at least half that in our model, which means people can afford to buy nutrient-dense wild foods that are not processed in a big industrial plant.”

Nate points out that the fish will be whole, so the consumer needs to be comfortable with this, and thought has gone into that. There will be educational aspects to the “platform” he has developed — useful information on specific fish species and videos showing how to break them down and use the less desirable parts, such as wings and collars, because we also need to waste less.

“That middleman setup has the consumer taking their fish fillets out of a packet and into the pan, and they have lost connection with their kaimoana. We will give them back this connection and understanding of the waste being generated, and this is where the chefs come in.”

Nate is on the phone to the chefs he supplies every week.

“I created a personal connection so they could fire questions at me. We educated the chefs so they could educate their front-of-house who could answer diners’ questions. If they want to know where that hapuku comes from, they can jump on social media and see it being caught yesterday. That education has been missing. We really appreciate the chefs we supply and the graft they do, because without them there is no us.”

A Cloudy Bay clam dish on the menu at Blenheim restaurant Arbour. Photo / Supplied

Nate has seconded a group of those chefs (Giulio Sturla, Craig Martin and Ryan Henley, among them) to the role of personal chef for his Gravity Fishing Experiences, which are also about education, while providing guests a unique harvesting, dining and lodge stay on Stewart Island.

“To have their support is mind-blowing,” says Nate. “When we went into lockdown a lot of them lost their jobs because they were in luxury lodges that no longer had guests. This is a way for us to still work together and continue the educational path we were on. The chefs prepare and cook different proteins harvested that day with the guests looking on, asking questions and learning how to handle the product themselves.”

Waste is becoming more of a consideration and one of the many good things the non-profit LegaSea organisation has done is back the Kai Ika project, distributing previously discarded fish heads, frames and offal to Auckland families and community groups who revere them.

If fishing in Auckland, you can support the project by getting your fish filleted at the Kai Ika trailer at Westhaven Marina. They will distribute unwanted parts to appreciative wh?nau. Kai Ika’s success has led to Freefishheads.co.nz — an app that links people with fish heads to those who would like them.

For the household shopper, home delivery is well worth considering. After many years supplying restaurants with premium blue cod, The Chatham Island Food Co now delivers to people at home; their paua mince also comes highly recommended.

Kiwi Fish deliver their sustainably caught harvest to homes in the Auckland region. Oceans North and Harbour Fish are reputable and deliver nationwide.

This story was originally published in Viva Magazine – Volume Six.

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