Business North August 2022

80 | PRODUCTION Lee Fish Highly prized fish exports booming Richard Loader All the fishermen supplying Lee Fish are owner/operators and mostly generational fishers, An hour and a half’s drive nor-east of Auckland in the quintessential fishing village of Leigh, Lee Fish operates a thriving fish export operation, with its produce highly prized and sought after, but till now has remained one of the best kept secrets within the shores of Aotearoa. Fresh fish carefully hand-graded and packed by the small but passionate team at Lee Fish is exported to North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, and served at such prestigious events at the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival. Founded by a group of fishermen, Lee Fish has been operating since 1957 on exactly the same site as it is now, just a stone’s throw from the wharf in Leigh. Initially established as a smokehouse, Leigh Fisheries, as it was then known, evolved as a chilled export packhouse with the majority of fish going to Japan during the ‘80s and ‘90s. During this time the Lee Fish brand was established, to simplify pronunciation and to resonate with the Japanese market. When Japan introduced stringent country-of-origin labelling, new markets were sought, with a joint venture subsidiary established in the United States, called Lee Fish USA. The shared ownership model proved successful and was rolled out across Asia and Europe. Up until two years ago about 90% of the product was exported, with the balance supplied to New Zealand restaurants. When an aging majority shareholder passed away, a decision was made to put the business on the market, and secure its succession and the continuance of a very unique product. Foodstuffs North Island Limited were successful in securing the business, buying into the supply chain, and bringing their social licence and assets to high quality, sustainability caught seafood. “We now export 66% of our product, so we’re gradually giving back more and more to New Zealand,” says General Manager Tom Searle. “The majority of the fish kept in New Zealand supplies Foodstuff’s North Island supermarkets, with a small portion going to restaurants, including 42 of the Metro Top 50 restaurants in Auckland on a weekly basis.” Put in context, Lee Fish handles about two and a half thousand tonnes of fish a year, with two thirds of that exported. Leigh is situated as a perfect coastal gateway to the outer Hauraki Gulf and its rich fishing grounds further north. While the inner-Gulf acts as a natural nursery for many important inshore species, the outer-Gulf with its myriad of islands, reefs and diverse coastline, offers an abundance of different types of fish throughout the year. “We have three catching groups,” explains Tom. “We have our snapper fleet which catch in-shore species including snapper, gurnard, tarakihi, travelly, john dory, kingfish. “We also have a surface-line fleet that catch southern blue fin tuna, bigeye tuna and swordfish. And, we have a fleet of cray vessels targeting red crays as well as packhorse.” All the fishermen supplying Lee Fish are owner/operators and mostly generational fishers, where the granddad fished for Lee, then the son and now the grandson. “They are very long relationships and we tend to do business on a handshake, rather than tying them into big phone book size contracts. It’s a relationship based very much on trust. We’re pretty unique really. It has that feel of a family business. “ It is commonly accepted that for the species we catch it is the best fish in the world, because of our catch method and handling processes. What happens between the ocean and plate is the key.” The use of long-lining to catch fish, one at a time using bait, humanely killing them using the Japanese spiking method of ‘Iki Jime’, then placing them in salt water brine before being packed in ice, ensures fish of the highest quality is delivered fresh to Lee Fish from the fishermen. “The vast majority of the export fish goes out as ‘whole round’. We take the fish out of a bin, place it in a box and put it on a plane. So it’s not being filleted or eviscerated, it just goes out whole. Because of the way it has been handled it has a superior shelf life. People are often surprised that we don’t gut the fish or anything, but it actually reduces shelf life if we have to do that extra handling.” With more and more of Lee Fish’s product available in Aotearoa through Pak n Save and New World Supermarkets, more and more of us will be able to taste what the world has savoured for generations. Import/Export Air & Ocean Freight Customs Brokerage 3PL, Warehousing & Distribu�on Event Logis�cs Proudly suppor�ng Lee Fish