A new generation of commercial fishermen is pushing for change, and chefs are helping to tell their story.
“I used to be a little bit naive and think there was no end to anything – a good day’s fishing would always be the same,” says Nathan Smith of Gravity Fishing. “But it’s not the case. I have witnessed the demise down here, and how little is done about it is alarming.”
Smith (Ngāi Tahu) comes from a long line of fishermen on his Stewart Island father’s side. He grew up in Bluff, where his mum’s family is from. His wife Anna’s family owned the Urwin and Co fish factory in the town for over a century. “It’s kind of in the blood, I guess.”
Smith has been fishing commercially for the last 13 years, 11 of those for Sanford out of Bluff. He launched Gravity Fishing in July last year after becoming increasingly concerned by the state of fish stocks on the stretch of coast known by fishermen as Area 5, which runs from the border of Fiordland and the West Coast all the way along to the south-eastern corner of the South Island.
“I could see over my history of fishing, the blue cod numbers were declining down here and nobody seemed prepared to do something to try to fix it, so I put a bit of thought into it and came up with the idea to sell my own fish and go straight to the high-end market,” says Smith.
“I’m basically contracting myself out to personally fish for restaurants, vineyards and lodges around New Zealand,” he explains. “We don’t have to work under the big company rules and stuff like that any more, so it gives us a bit of freedom to convey the message that we want to send, to tell the story from someone who’s actually involved week in and week out, as opposed to a big flash marketing scheme to make the bigger companies look good.
“We’re able to speak the truth and there’s no chance of diluting it – it’s the shortest supply chain you can get from fisherman to chef.”
Smith and his team use jigging machines, which are like highly automated fishing rods with 10 hooks on each line that allow them to target specific species. This essentially allows them to fish to order.
“I check the weather forecast and once I’ve established where we’re going to go, I work out what species we’re going to be targeting – for example, this week we were targeting groper, blue cod and sea perch,” Smith explains. “Then I put out a bulk email to everyone so that they have an inkling of what they can expect for the week, and they come back to me with an order of how much and what species of fish they’d like.”
Fish are despatched using the ikejime method that originated in Japan: a spike is inserted quickly into a particular spot in the fish’s head to cause immediate brain death, which is not only more humane than other methods but also prevents the release of lactic acid into the flesh, which can impart a sour taste, then put on ice and transported to Gravity’s packhouse nearby.
Gravity’s clients include many of New Zealand’s top restaurants, and a number of chefs have come down to Bluff for a trip out on the boat. “I encourage the chefs to come out because it’s a really good thing for them to do,” Smith says. “The feedback we have had has been like ‘wow, we really respect what you do. It’s not a walk in the park and I respect the product a hell of a lot more now’.”
Tony Stewart, owner of Auckland fine-diner Clooney, travelled to Southland for a fishing trip with Gravity last month, joined by Clooney’s head chef Nobu Lee and Australian chef Daniel Puskas. Puskas, who owns three-hatted Sixpenny in Sydney and was named Australia’s chef of the year in the 2018 Good Food Guide, was joining Lee in the kitchen at Clooney for a special seafood-focused collab dinner, and the trip was all about getting up close and personal with what they would be putting on the table.
Stewart is originally from Southland – the rolled rs come out when he’s tired (such as during prep for a sold-out collaborative dinner after two nights on a fishing boat) – but it was the first time to the deep south for Taipei-born, Tokyo-raised Lee (although he did go to high school in Christchurch), and the first time in Aotearoa at all for Puskas.
“I always wanted to cook with him as I really like his food,” says Lee of Puskas. The pair are friends from their time working for chef Mark Best in Sydney. “We share similar food philosophies and a similar style: we’re very produce-driven, our food is very simple and very focused.
“But we didn’t want to get him over here to just cook the dinner, we wanted to show him around, to show him the most of New Zealand. Last year I started buying fish from Nate at Gravity Fishing and he’s super passionate, so I thought maybe it could be the ocean.”
The trip was “absolutely incredible”, says Puskas. Not so much for Lee – he was horribly seasick the whole time. “I was there, but kind of not there. I was just lying on the bed the whole time.
“Now I know I’m not suitable for any ocean activities!”
The groper they caught ended up as the fourth course on the seven-course tasting menu at Clooney, glazed with honey and reduced pumpkin juice and served with steamed pumpkin and warm quince juice. “I didn’t want to hide the flavour of the fish behind anything,” says Puskas. “Because we went down there and fished with Nathan, I wanted to do a simple fish course that really highlighted the fish and nothing more.
“For sure you treat the product differently, as you should,” he adds. “It almost makes you feel like you’re a bit of a cheat. You let Nate do all the hard work and all we have to do is cook it and put it in on the plate. Not enough emphasis is put on these guys. They’re the real heroes.”
Stewart agrees. “He believes in change and longevity. It gives you so much hope when you can see the change in the generations. The people coming through are really thinking of the younger ones – for Nate it’s all about his kids, that’s why he’s doing it.”
Smith hopes to inspire other fishermen to change their methods and then form an alliance of sustainable operators. “That’s our next stage – to try and link everyone up but still remain our separate entities,” he says. “The support from the guys down here, the younger guys especially, has been huge. They can see that it’s the way forward.”