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Kai Ika: The project that saves fish parts from the waste bin

More than 52,000kg of fish parts have been diverted from the waste bin in a project that helps marae, churches and others.

Respect for fish and the marine environment in general prompted spear fisherman Sam Woolford to give up his marketing job to help ensure future generations – including his two young ocean-loving daughters – will have a similar opportunity to appreciate locally-sourced seafood. He is now programme lead for LegaSea, a not-for-profit organisation established by the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council in 2012 to promote better fishing practices and reduce the pressure on the marine environment.

One of the most obvious challenges was to reduce waste in the recreational fishing sector. In multicultural Auckland, this problem was all too apparent – and contradictory. On the one hand, the mainly Pākehā fishing community at the Outboard Boating Club on Tāmaki Drive had closed its filleting station because they could not deal with the volume of heads and frames being left behind. On the other, local communities who valued these “unwanted” leftovers were struggling to source them.

“We were really frustrated by waste in general but the one that really did our heads in was all the fish heads that were being dumped,” says Woolford. “In most Māori, Pacific and Indonesian cultures, the fish head is the most revered part of the fish. In Māori culture, the biggest and best fish head was saved for the chief – it was kai rangatira, chiefly food. We realised if we could marry these groups together and create relationships, we could do more with the fish that are landed. And, if we get more people eating more of the fish, we will take fewer fish from the ocean.”

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The catalyst was a media report on the 80,000 kūmara grown at the Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere to feed the local community. “We thought that was amazing and wanted to do something to help.”

Now, through the Kai Ika project, the boating club offers a professional fish-filleting service at $2.50 a fish. The heads and frames are given to the marae, where they are distributed to local families, churches, soup kitchens and other marae in the area. Leftover gills, guts and offal are dug back into the garden as nutrient-rich fertiliser for the kūmara. It is, says Woolford, a perfect example of “complete utilisation” of the fish.

“If you think of the recession and two world wars, you don’t have to look that far back in history to realise complete utilisation isn’t a new concept. When I was younger, we used to go out and catch crayfish. I would always take one to my grandmother and she would make stock out of the shells. But we live in a time when people think it is acceptable to be wasteful. That’s a bit obnoxious when there are so many people out there who don’t have enough food.”

It has been a runaway success. The boating club’s upgraded filleting facility now processes 500-1000kg of heads and frames a week. More than 52,000kg of fish parts have been redirected from the waste bin since the project was launched and marae members are now involved in the processing side.

This summer, Kai Ika will open at the Mana Cruising Club in Wellington, using a container supplied by Royal Wolf at nominal rent.

Most importantly, perhaps, the project offers a new model of respect – for the fish and the environment. “Because, if we continue to abuse it, we will find ourselves with fisheries collapsing,” Woolford says, “and we won’t be able to share kaimoana with future generations.”

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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