A marae's simple solution to New Zealand's 'atrocious' fish waste problem

A marae in Auckland has found a simple solution to New Zealand's fish waste problem - giving unwanted kaimoana to those struggling to put food on the table. 

A fisheries researcher says fishing companies throw away about 60,000 tonnes of fresh fish heads and frames each year. This, while a growing number of whānau are going hungry as the COVID-19 job crisis begins to bite. 

While much of the unwanted fish heads and frames are turned into fish meal - a lot is simply being thrown away. Experts point to big commercial trawlers as the biggest culprits, but recreational fishers are also contributors.

Sam Woolford from advocacy group Legasea says fishers wanted to do better, so three years ago they started taking their unwanted fish heads and frames to Papatūānuku Kokiri Marae in Mangere for families in need. 

"A lot of it, to be honest, was being dumped, being thrown back into the ocean. It just wasn't being utilised, not in the way that we wanted to see it being done," he told The Hui.

"As these natural resources come under more pressure, increasing pressure, we have to be looking at better utilisation, making sure we use every ounce of this kaimoana. Ultimately if we don't prioritise the health of the marine environment we will be the losers."

In the past three years they've delivered about 90,000 kilograms of fish heads and frames to the marae. But this all came to a standstill during the COVID-19 lockdowns as restrictions meant recreational fishers couldn't go out on the water.

And at the same time demand at the marae quadrupled due to the economic fallout from the virus. 

That's when big fishing company Moana New Zealand stepped up to the plate. The company is now giving enough fresh fish heads and frames to feed hundreds of whānau at the marae every week.

General manager Mark Ngata says as a Māori owned company it has a responsibility to give back to its community in times of need.

"The concerning thing is the increasing amount of people that are really finding it hard and are turning to these food banks and these sorts of initiatives. But this is part of who we are - the hapu and marae are part of our stakeholders so if we can help then we will," he says. 

Wife and husband Valerie Teraitua and Lionel Hotene told The Hui dozens of whānau line up outside the marae most days for the free kaimoana. They say since COVID-19 demand has quadrupled.

"Yeah, a lot of them can't afford the basics," Lionel Hotene says. "You know after the power bills paid, yeah they're all struggling with food."

Valerie Teraitua adds: "Why would we be throwing away kai, especially fish heads and frames? That's like a delicacy, that's like a chiefly food to our Māori and Pacific. And to see that go to waste really breaks my heart."

Among those who have benefited from the project is Koopu Teraitua. She returned home to Māngere last year, leaving behind an abusive relationship. She's now a solo parent to five tamariki - putting kai on the table can be a challenge when there are so many other bills to juggle. 

"They've given me and my children a lot," she says. "It means a lot."

So why aren't we using more of the fish - and letting so much go to waste?

Dr Glenn Simmons, whose research into the fishing industry led to a ministerial inquiry, says filets make up just a third of a fish. He says the rest - the frames, heads and guts - are often being dumped, rather than put to better use.

"I think it's atrocious," he says.

"Other countries like in Iceland and the Faroe Islands consume almost 100 percent of the fish. We don't because we're stuck in these 1950's business models that basically say if you can't fillet and deep fry it, it's not worth anything - so we throw it away. " he told The Hui. "That's a tragedy. We are decades away, even getting close to what they [Iceland] do."

Iceland uses 96 percent of the fish - the skin is turned into leather and the heads are dried and exported to parts of Africa 

Moana New Zealand says it is trying to do better and is now only throwing away a fraction of its fish. 

"It would be around about five percent. And that's mainly, you know, the fish intestines and guts and those sorts of things," Ngata says. 

And there are signs of change within the industry overall. This week fishing company Sanford announced it had bought half of cosmetic company Two Islands. 

The company plans to use collagen from its hoki fish in beauty products. 

At Papatuanuku Kōkiri Marae they're using every last bit of the donated kaimoana. The guts are fermented into fertiliser and any leftover heads and frames are dug into large community gardens on the marae grounds. 

The marae is an urban oasis in New Zealand's largest city, and the gardens are fueled not only by fish waste but by community volunteers. It's here that Lionel Hotene and Valerie Teraitua are not only giving whanau kai - but teaching them to grow their own. 

"Love is what our people need. And I suppose, if we can show that through our hands by showing people how to grow your own food, if that's not their forte, then giving them [a] box of veggies to eat, sharing fish heads and fish frames when they haven't got much in their cupboard."

And Teraitua says there's huge scope when it comes to diverting other so-called waste to our most vulnerable. 

"Why is it not even in our minds? Why is it not even in our hearts to think about - could this Kai actually feed a whanau in need? 

"How much more Kai is getting wasted that we don't know about?"

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says its focus is on the sustainability of the resource and a key way to achieve this is through monitoring the volume of fish in the sea, and controlling how much and what species are harvested. 

"For this reason we do not keep records on how fish heads, frames and guts are processed," MPI said in a statement.

MPI says about half of the deepwater fleet in New Zealand waters have fish meal plants onboard and these vessels very rarely have any wasted fish product as all parts of a fish are processed on board.

For more information visit: https://legasea.co.nz/