Although the kahawai (Arripis trutta) is sometimes called sea trout or sea salmon, its resemblance to trout or salmon is only superficial.
The average size is 40–50 centimetres. The fish group together according to size, and schools of juveniles 20–35 centimetres long are quite common.
Kahawai live in open coastal waters throughout New Zealand, but are more common around the North Island. They seldom venture more than 20 kilometres offshore. Adults eat crustaceans and small fish, juveniles feed on plankton. In turn, they are prey for orcas, bottlenose dolphins, kingfish and bronze whaler sharks.
An important commercial species since the 1970s, kahawai are also sought by recreational anglers for their fighting qualities. The flesh has not always been considered the best eating, but if the fish are bled and kept cool they yield good-quality fillets, and taste delicious when prepared in a smoker.
The snapper (Pagrus auratus) is probably the best known and most highly prized New Zealand sea fish. It is the country’s only sea bream, and also occurs off Australia.
Snapper live at all depths down to about 200 metres. They are most commonly found on the west and north-east coasts of the North Island. Stragglers reach south to Foveaux Strait. They feed on seabed invertebrates and near-bottom squid and small fish. Their average size is 30–50 centimetres, but they occasionally grow to 1 metre.
The fish are favoured by recreational anglers for the struggle they put up when hooked. They make fine eating. Commercial fishing increased during the 1970s and early 1980s, with annual catches of 10,000–15,000 tonnes. Some stocks were overfished. As snapper are both long-lived and territorial, not venturing far from their home area, depleted stocks take a long time to recover. Under a government system to manage fish stocks (the Quota Management System), stocks in some areas are recovering.
Fish out of water
The frostfish (Lepidopus caudatus) regularly strays into coastal waters. One man recalls finding them at Clifford Bay in Marlborough:
‘On two occasions I stood between a frostfish and the beach, and, as he came on, turned him with a long stick head to the sea, making him swim out, but, in a minute or two, he turned again for shore, going up high and dry as fast as possible. So, as he seemed to have set his mind upon landing, I gave up the attempt to influence his decision, and took him home for breakfast.’ 1
The conspicuous yellow tail of the kingfish (Seriola lalandi) identifies this worldwide species. It is widely distributed around the North Island and northern South Island, extending southward in summer. Mainly an open water fish, it may enter estuaries and enclosed waters in search of small pelagic fish (pilchards, kōheru) and crustaceans. Kingfish are aggressive predators that swim quickly. Schools often hunt around offshore reefs. They can reach 1.7 metres in length and weigh 56 kilograms.
Recreational anglers target the species – they fight well and the flesh is excellent. Two related fish, the Samson fish (Seriola hippos) and amberjack (Seriola rivoliana) are also sometimes found in warmer northern waters.
Barracouta (Thyrsites atun) are carnivorous fish of tropical and temperate seas. They are slender and long (averaging half a metre), with a wicked set of teeth. Known to Māori as mangā, they were very important to the Ngāi Tahu tribe of southern New Zealand, who used lures to catch them. When split and dried they were a staple food.
During the 1980s and 1990s they formed a significant commercial fishery, with 20,000–30,000 tonnes caught annually.