Sustainable in the South

Nate Smith proudly displays a groper. PHOTOS: DAN HENDRY/COUNTRY CALENDAR
Nate Smith proudly displays a groper. PHOTOS: DAN HENDRY/COUNTRY CALENDAR
Southern fisherman Nate Smith has just been presented with the New Zealand Seafood Sustainability Awards emerging leader award. About 
to take part in a workshop in Dunedin this month, he tells Rebecca Fox about his mission to raise awareness of sustainable fishing practices.

 

For a fisherman, he has a higher profile than most.

Nate Smith, of Gravity Fishing in Bluff, is willing to put himself out there in an effort to get New Zealanders to realise there are better ways to fish, and more species to fish, than using mass production and, in the South, just catching blue cod.

His efforts have led to him featuring on television shows such as Country Calendar and A New Zealand Food Story and, most significantly, as winner of the inaugural New Zealand Seafood Sustainability Awards emerging leader award.

Gravity Fishing was one of 50 entries in the awards held in Wellington on Monday night and was a finalist in the Market Innovation and Value Added section.

Smith has been recognised for running his own commercial fishing operation that only harvests fish to order using hook and line jigging and killing fish using the humane Japanese Ikijimi method.

"It’s an incentive that we are on the right path. We’ve been put in the same categories as the big boys ... but I’m a one-man band. If I can change the face of it, I’ll bloody well give it a good nudge."

He is doing that by taking his business a step further by recently moving to catching fish by hook and line, using no mechanical machinery and catching only what is ordered, nothing more.

Nate Smith and Ben Bayly out on Gravity during filming for New Zealand Food Story. Below: a lemon...
Nate Smith and Ben Bayly out on Gravity during filming for New Zealand Food Story. Below: a lemon sole. PHOTO: TV3

"That means nothing for myself, for my family. I can’t preach and then do another thing."

It has meant further investment in logistics and packaging to be as sustainable as they can be.

"We want to take it to the next level, to educate people the best we can."

The journey started three years ago when Smith gave up fishing for one of the "big boys" because he was concerned about the sustainability of the blue cod fishery in the South.

"I used to work for a big company catching as much fish as I could, caught as much blue cod as I could. There was a bonus if we could catch so much — a crayfish quota, a little sweetener."

But Smith, who is a third-generation fisherman, had begun to realise the fishing stock could only take so much before it struggled to come back.

So he decided to go out on his own.The aim was, and still is, to look after the fishery and create an awareness of different fish species and show people where and how the fish on their plate got there. The key words are sustainability, traceability and transparency.

To do that, he cut out the middleman and went direct to the chefs.

He started out with three customers — one was Sam Gasson, from Moiety, in Dunedin — and within three weeks had 18 on his books.

That gave him confidence that he was on the right track.

Part of the service is dealing directly with the customer "face to face" when possible so they can pass on the information and educate those in the hospitality industry about the different fish out there.

He sees restaurants as the key to educating customers — an important link in the chain of sharing the story behind where the fish comes from, the rules fishers are governed by and the advantages of different species.

Nate Smith, of Gravity Fishing. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Nate Smith, of Gravity Fishing. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

He takes chefs out on his boat whenever they can spare the time, showing them exactly how and where their fish is caught. He also does small videos and photographs and sends them to chefs to show how their fish were caught.

"If they want to know something they can ask and I’ll do my best to answer or go out of my way to find out.

"We can bounce ideas off each other, build that solid connection, backed up by solid produce — we have to look after our own countrymen."

Gasson has been out with Smith, as has top Auckland chef Ben Bayly when filming A New Zealand Food Story. In the show, Bayly said Smith was inspiring and he admired the way he fished.

"It’s exactly what I want for Ahi[Bayly’s new Auckland restaurant]."

Gasson is similar to Smith in that he likes to work with people he likes, who have a similar ethos.

"He’s honest and up front and has the best fish I’ve worked with. It’s caught when it eats best, is at its most sustainable and has a local story."

That story is what customers these days crave and it makes people excited to try different food, he says.

Part of Smith’s quest for sustainability requires fishing for certain species only when they are "in season" and providing the whole fish so there is no waste.

"Wild fish have life cycles. These guys have to reproduce every year, but if we hammer the same species all year round they’re not going to have the chance to do that."

He sent samples of the fish caught in his fishing area — from Slope Point to Awarua Point, spanning more than 200 nautical miles — to a Japanese sushi chef in Toronto, Canada, to judge when each species is at its best for eating.

"We then presented that information to the chefs, that these fish would be caught at the best condition. The rest is history."

Smith might spend two days fishing each week, with another day to pack orders, drop them at couriers or deliver them himself. The rest of the week is spent liaising with clients, seeking new ones and dealing with logistics and planning.

"It’s a good balance, as we’ve had two very young children during this time. It means I’m physically home, emotionally at home with my wife and children."

But he is also keen on ensuring other fishermen can learn from his experience, so he documents everything he does.

His system has been successful and now seven other local fishing boats join him using similar methods to fish sustainably.

It has mainly been younger fishermen attracted to the new ways, but he has noticed increasing interest from some of the older fishermen in Bluff.

The real positive for the younger guys is the feedback they get from the chefs for the product they receive, he says.

"They’re getting a high off that feedback. It’s new, they’ve never had it before."

Smith also hopes the documentation might help him push his message at government level so it is easier for smaller fishermen to operate within the system.

"Initially, I wasn’t that ambitious but then I found out I can make a change. We’re at a crossroads."

When Covid-19 hit, Gravity lost all of its customers but it soon found its feet again with local customers propping up the business.

They began to do home delivery to businesses around Otago and Southland.

"It put into perspective where my local was and that was within driving distance."

He has decided to scale down and concentrate on supplying that area, although he will still supply his existing restaurant clients.

For those loyal clients further afield, they are working on a more sustainable packaging option that could be sent back and reused.

"There are a few more tweaks to be made and then we’ll be be more comfortable and able to take a few days off."

 

TO SEE

Moiety Fish Masterclass, Dine Dunedin, August 18, 5pm.

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