Fish tales: Kai Ika bringing fish heads to those that need (and want) them most

by | Sep 28, 2023 | Opinion

With Aotearoa’s fish stocks under pressure from over-fishing, the way we consume fish becomes a vitally important issue. Many New Zealanders, particularly Pākehā, eat only the fillets of the fish and tend to discard those delicious and nutritious parts that the late chef Anthony Bourdain approvingly labelled the nasty bits. These wasteful habits mean we need to take more fish out of the ocean and further endanger our natural resources. In a time of rising costs when many people are struggling to put food on the table, this profligacy is inexcusable.

This is where the Kai Ika Project comes in. Originally set up in 2016 by Legasea (an arm of the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council), to educate recreational fishermen on how to fully utilise their catches, Kai Ika has grown and expanded its remit over the years to become a vital link between working class, multicultural communities in Auckland and Wellington and the usually white, middle-class recreational fishermen who sail out to catch their kahawai, kingfish, and snapper every weekend.

The project originally set up shop at Z Pier at Westhaven, Auckland to provide a filleting service for recreational fishermen. The fishermen would pay a small fee then take their fillets home to their families, while the rest of the fish carcass was transported to Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Mangere and distributed to the South Auckland community.

The beauty of the operation lay in the fact that the heads, cheeks, bellies, collars, and frames were often the parts of the fish most appreciated and cherished by the culturally diverse population of South Auckland. For example, Māori call fish heads ‘the food of chiefs’.

The project was a small scale success.

And then came Covid.

Suddenly, no one was going out on the water to catch fish. At the same time, vulnerable communities in South Auckland were cut off from a valuable source of protein just when they needed it most.

“That’s when our operations exploded.” says Dallas Abel over the phone from Kai Ika HQ.

The Kai Ika team, seeing the extent of the demand for fish heads and frames from the community, reached out to Moana New Zealand, a commercial fishery.

“Moana immediately came onboard. We went from collecting maybe a hundred kilos of fish on a good week to suddenly receiving a few hundred kilos every couple of days.”

Since then Kai Ika has continued to expand. As well as Moana, they now work with Sanford and Kiwifish, along with various retailers. They are now collecting and distributing 2,500kgs every week.

This pivot towards obtaining fish from commercial fisheries was an unexpected one for an organisation that was set up primarily to serve the interests of recreational fishers. But Abel believes that bringing together two groups who are often at loggerheads, can strengthen their position.

“You can’t argue with Kai Ika,” says Abel, “reducing waste and feeding people is a no-brainer.” Abel believes that the work Kai Ika do ensures the government and commercial fishers alike see that they are serious about working towards better outcomes for everyone. “We’re actually doing something to help. Not just complaining from the sidelines.”

Recently Kai Ika have expanded their operation to Wellington. Wellingtonian Chris Jupp had been running a similar service in the capital, picking up heads and frames and distributing them to various communities who needed and wanted them. He got in touch with Kai Ika and after seeing the dedication Jupp was bringing to feeding his community, decided to invest in him and bring him under the Kai Ika umbrella.

Abel says: “Since then we’ve had expressions of interest from all over the country: Hamilton, Tauranga, Nelson, the Hawkes Bay. We’re in the process trying to work out how to do it.”

Kai Ika’s role as a provider of kai to poorer communities has taken on a life of its own, but the project still has its original goals in mind: to reduce the impact of recreational fishing on New Zealand’s oceans. This means educating fishermen on how to use the whole fish, nose to tail. “The more of the fish we eat, the less fish we need to catch, and the more fish we can leave in the oceans” say Abel.

To this end they publish recipes every week in New Zealand Fishing News and use social media try to educate fishermen on the benefits of eating the whole fish. If you’re looking to use more of the fish you catch, then this fish stock recipe from Kai Ika is a good place to start.

Using the whole fish isn’t just about reducing waste. Its also about honouring the food we take from the ocean, and discovering how delicious ocean fish can be if we’re prepared to look beyond the fillets.

About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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