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A large box of fresh Leigh Fisheries snapper arrives at a restaurant. Photo: Chris Sisarich, NZ Story.

You know you’re doing something right when 35 of the top 50 restaurants in Auckland – as voted by Metro magazine – want to be able to provide discerning diners with your product. Auckland-based journalist Dionne Christian visits Leigh Fisheries

You know you’re doing something right when 35 of the top 50 restaurants in Auckland – as voted by Metro magazine – want to be able to provide discerning diners with your product. Leigh Fisheries, north of Auckland, has long supplied the international market with premium fish which is predominantly long line-caught, sustainably certified and exported chilled to its satellite offices in Europe, North America and Singapore.

The company, established around 50 years ago, learned lessons from the Japanese who taught its fishers about iki-jime (a method of paralysing fish to maintain quality). Along with other eco-friendly fishing techniques, it has continued to develop this and gained a formidable reputation as one of the best in the business.

Seafood industry veteran Gary Monk describes the company as one which punches well above its weight on the world stage. “If there were Olympic medals given out for fishing, Leigh would be on the middle podium with a gold medal round its neck every time,” says Gary. “It’s a strong brand and culture especially in terms of showing respect for the materials and resources they’re working with. They’re customer-focused and driven and take tremendous pride in what they do.”

What’s making Monk – and those Auckland restaurant chefs – even happier is that Lee Fish NZ, the domestic foodservice branch of Leigh Fisheries, is working to develop a local market which prizes quality over quantity. Lee Fish NZ Sales and marketing manager Sam Birch says in a competitive environment where ecological concerns are increasingly important to consumers, being able to safely say one’s product is wild, fresh, natural and sustainable is a vital hook.

In addition, Leigh Fisheries is the biggest employer in the village despite owning no boats. Instead, independent boats – 30 registered in the port of Leigh and 30 in other North Island ports–fish for species such as gurnard, trevally, John Dory, tarakihi and snapper. Birch and operations manager Tom Searle says many skippers are second or third generation fishermen with a deep understanding of the local marine environment. It allows them to operate almost like hunter-gatherers, says Tom, altering their focus depending on climate conditions, breeding patterns, seasonable events and markets.

Birch calls restaurant chefs each evening to let them know what’s being caught. The fish arrives at headquarters in the early hours of morning where around 20 staff diligently work filetting, sorting and packing fish to ensure quality is consistent and always high. Less than 24 hours after it was in the ocean, it’s on diners’ plates. If they ask – and there’s that growing tendency to do so – restaurant staff can tell diners exactly where and how the fish was caught. They may be surprised to learn it comes from a company headquartered in laidback Leigh, best known for its closeness to the Goat Island marine reserve rather than a forward-thinking fishing company whose story and products are going global.

It features on the Government’s New Zealand Story website which includes profiles from home-grown businesses making the most of ‘distinctly Kiwi attributes’ and seeks to broaden the perceptions of our country overseas. The company makes much of the fact New Zealand has ‘clean, cool’ oceans and our seafood is something its staff feel they have stewardship over and a responsibility for hence the use of predominantly longline methods.

This prevents waste and avoids catching juvenile and old fish thus minimising the risk of over-fishing. More recently, it’s pioneered the development of traceability systems using QR codes as well as high-tech SeaSmart marine networking equipment. Searle recently received a Seabird Smart Award from the Southern Seabirds Solutions Trust for his work in trying to stop seabirds being killed as bycatch. He’s ensured almost every longline skipper they do business with goes on a Seabird Smart Training workshop to learn fishing practices that reduce risk to seabirds. He has also helped with the development of Seabird Risk Management Plans for each vessel and coordinated trips for fishermen to Great Barrier Island/Aotea’s black petrel colony. Dave Moore, a director of Wild Fish New Zealand Ltd, doesn’t mince his words when asked how he came to be one of the longline fishermen who supply Leigh Fisheries.

Back in the late 1970s, he couldn’t get a beach seining licence so sought an alternative way to catch fish; Leigh was starting to do business with the Japanese who were introducing local fishers to some interesting – and profitable – techniques. “We would have scrubbed their teeth had they offered us enough!” Moore may well joke but he could see the potential (and necessity) for fish that was sustainability caught and then chilled, rather than frozen in large quantities, and airfreighted to a market where consumers put a premium on quality.

He says it was a strategic decision to contract exclusively with Leigh Fisheries and he did so because of its boutique nature and artisan approach. He acknowledges adjusting to the new techniques took a bit of time but there’s no way he could ever change course now, he says. The traditional Japanese-style iki spike through the brain kills fish instantly and draws blood out of the fillets so it settles in the gut cavity. This slows down spoilage and gives the fillet a much cleaner and better flavour.

Fish are then immediately placed into a salt water ice slurry which also helps maintain their freshness and colour. “When you see the quality, you just can’t go back to methods you might have been using previously,” he says. “You develop a strong sense of pride and strive to maintain consistent quality time and time again. The health of the fishery is also paramount; I reckon it’s in better shape now than it was 30 years ago.”

He also liked the way the company developed new markets in North America and Europe when the Japanese one contracted. It’s certainly led to growth for Wild Fish NZ which now has six boats, a 21-strong staff and supplies snapper, gurnard, tarakihi and hapuka. The company has also worked closely with Leigh Fisheries on its seabird protection initiatives.

Moore acknowledges he doesn’t get out on the water as much as he used to but is happy to be developing the next generation of fishers. “I tell people this is something you either love or hate and I give everyone a trial so they can get out on the water and see what it’s really like because sometimes they don’t have a realistic picture,” he says. “For those of us who love it, there’s nothing better than spending a day out on the water.”

But he didn’t quite see it that way when he was younger. After leaving school, he fished for a year before deciding friends who had bank jobs looked to be living the good life. A stint in banking followed and then time spent working and eventually managing a dairy company. “I saw friends moving back up north to take over family farms and working alongside their fathers so I thought, ‘maybe my dad might have something to teach me, too’ so I asked if I could come fishing with him.”

It wasn’t smooth sailing; Moore’s fisherman dad, Graham, initially said no but his son persisted and, for a few years, the two worked side by side. “I’ve got great memories of that time; it was quite special.”