Story: Seafood

Page 3. New flavours, old habits

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If New Zealanders were slow to appreciate the variety and quality of seafood available to them, others were not. Japanese fishing boats arrived in New Zealand waters in the 1950s and were followed by Russian, Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese vessels. They fished for arrow squid, hoki, mackerel, southern blue whiting, hake and barracouta – species unfamiliar to most New Zealanders.

Deep-water fish

Deep-water fishing developed in the 1980s and is now the mainstay of the nation’s seafood industry. Orange roughy and hoki are the main catch. Orange roughy fillets commanded top prices in 2004, about $20–25 per kilogram in central Wellington. Hoki is a low-value species, selling for only $6–10. Hoki has a delicate flesh that quickly turns to mush if roughly handled. In the 1980s most hoki reached the retail market as a minced product such as surimi block, which could be fashioned into fish cakes or crab sticks. In the 1990s it became possible to fillet and freeze hoki within two hours of it being landed. Since then, it has mostly been sold as fillets or battered and breaded fish meals.

Slimehead revisited

Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) is a delicately flavoured oil-rich fish that was originally despised by fishermen, who named it ‘slimehead’. The Japanese were more explicit, dubbing it ‘diarrhoea fish’ and refusing to eat it. When it was discovered that the fish could be made edible by removing a waxy layer beneath the skin, it became a desired species. Marketing gurus introduced it to the world as orange roughy. Catches boomed in the 1980s, but research showed that the fish was slow growing and too many had been taken. In the 2000s orange roughy had become relatively scarce.


New Zealand scallops became widely available in the 1980s. Commercial harvest is from enhanced wild stocks in Golden Bay and Tasman Bay, at the top of the South Island. Queen scallops come from waters at the southern end of the country. New Zealanders eat the entire animal, while Americans discard the orange sex organs and consume only the white muscle.

Farmed seafoods

Following the introduction of aquaculture (the farming of marine and freshwater fish and shellfish) in New Zealand waters in the 1980s, mussels, quinnat salmon and Pacific oysters soon became plentiful. The New Zealand Fishing Industry Board promoted seafoods new to the domestic market, using slogans such as ‘Fish for a compliment’, and producing recipe leaflets and cookbooks. The New Zealand Seafood Council continues this work, and since 1990 it has emphasised the health benefits of eating seafood.

Reluctant consumers

At the start of the 21st century, New Zealanders could choose from a wide range of high-quality seafood; however, they remain reluctant consumers. According to a 1997 National Nutrition Survey, each New Zealander ate only 8.7 kilograms of seafood that year. This was made up of fish (83%), shellfish and squid (11%), and crustaceans (crayfish, crabs, prawns – 6%).

Ethnic preference

Māori and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand continue to eat more seafood than Pākehā. About 25% of Pacific Islanders ate shellfish at least once a week in 1997, compared with 15% of Māori and only 3% of Pākehā and other groups. Pacific Islanders ate fish the most frequently.

Asian flavours

Twentieth-century immigrants from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and South-East Asia were happy to eat shellfish that had been ignored by other New Zealanders. Soon there were reports that Asians were plundering the coast of all edible species. There was evidence that some groups of Asians were involved in the illegal harvesting and export of crayfish and pāua. However, they were not the only black marketeers, and a range of people have been prosecuted, including Pākehā, Pacific Islanders and Māori.

Asian arrivals brought their cuisine with them and since 2000, Japanese sushi bars have sprung up in the major cities.

Best fish guide

Arising from their concerns about overfishing, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (who also monitor fisheries management) published a best fish guide in 2004. The guide listed 62 commercial fisheries, rating them according to their contribution to a healthy marine environment. Of the species of fish profiled, none were considered ecologically safe to catch and eat. Pilchards, blue moki, trevally and kahawai were the best options, and deep-water fish were to be avoided.

How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff, 'Seafood - New flavours, old habits', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 January 2023)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 12 Jun 2006