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Fish heads and frames provide tasty kai

Kai Ika collects fish heads and frames and distributes them to anyone who appreciates the many dishes they can be made with

Saving the wasted parts of every fish caught is helping the environment and providing tasty delicacies around the Auckland region, thanks to a project called Kai Ika.

After a fish has fillets cut from it, the remainder, up to 65 per cent of its weight, is often sent to landfills or made into low value fish meal. Instead Kai Ika collects the fish heads and frames and distributes them to anyone who appreciates the many dishes they can be made with.

When the project began it collected 10-20kg of fish every couple of days from recreational fishers.

This has increased to 2000kg a week now that several commercial fish processing firms have joined in.

Kai Ika grew out of a programme called FishCare that aimed to help recreational fishers minimise their impact on the marine environment which included using as much of each fish as possible, just as most parts are used of animals killed for meat.

The programme is run by LegaSea, a non-profit organisation established by the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council and dedicated to restoring the abundance, biodiversity and health of New Zealand’s marine environment.

Around the time the FishCare programme was run, the Outboard Boating Club of Auckland ran a fish filleting station for members but threw fish frames and heads into a skip bin which was taken to the landfill.

There was the feeling something was not right so the club approached LegaSea.

Marae key to project’s success

An approach was made to the Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere East which had a food distribution system in place and soon Kai Ika was born. Its philosophy is to give respect to every fish harvested to ensure no part of the flesh is wasted. Long-term this means that fewer fish will be caught.

Since September 2016 previously discarded fish parts have been collected from the boating club by marae whanau and redistributed to families and community groups in South Auckland who value these fish parts and enjoy their sweet flesh.

Carlos Hotene and Kharl Rameka collect fish heads for the Kai Ika project in Auckland

Dallas Abel, the project coordinator for Kai Ika, says the volume of fish collected increased once commercial fishing companies became involved.

At first Kai Ika staff removed the gills and guts but found some cultures appreciate those parts to make stock.

Using traditional recipes

Another aim is to reproduce the traditional recipes to create many cultural delicacies. For some people they have lost their connections to traditional ways of using fish.

“It’s pretty special to provide culturally appropriate food,” Dallas says.

In Māori and Pacific cultures the heads are considered chiefly food and considered a delicacy.

The wings (located under the fish’s throat) and cheeks are probably the best parts as they are closest to the bones and more difficult to access, Dallas says.

Once a week during summer months the project smokes the heads first as an extra bonus.

Dallas says the marae folks were surprised by the volume of fish they received for distribution.

Open to everyone

He says 70-80 per cent of the fish is distributed around the Māori and Pacific communities and much of the remainder goes to Asian groups.  Dallas says the distribution database is open to anyone in Auckland who wants to join. There is no means test.

For some people it is only through Kai Ika that they can get fish to eat. Others are involved because they find it difficult to buy fish frames through shops.

Kai Ika aims to educate people that the whole fish can be used and to create a love for the recipes that can be cooked.

In Iceland 80 to 90 per cent of each fish is used, Dallas says.

He says fish are an easily forgotten food reserve because they are hidden under the water.

Dallas says the project is also bringing communities together through sharing food, especially in cultures where shared meals are traditional.

And he says young people are taking the fishheads to their grandparents and asking them to show them how to cook them.

Filleting stations also fund-raisers

Kai Ika runs filleting stations at Westhaven Marina and the Outboard Boating Club, Orakei, where recreational fishers can have their catch filleted for a small fee.

Kai Ika employs professional filleters to do the work and the fees charged are one of its only means to fundraise. Prices begin at $3 for a small to medium fish up to $10 for a kingfish or hāpuku.

The stations operate seven days a week during summer with reduced services during cooler months. All fish waste from the stations goes to the marae.

The Westhaven Marina is home to this Kai Ika filleting station where recreational fishers can have their catch filleted for a small fee

Dallas says many people are nervous about filleting their catches, for both technique and needing specialist knives.

He says people feel good that their fee is going to the community and the fish parts will not be wasted.

Dallas says there have been delightful moments of interaction between various groups whose paths would not usually meet, such as the recreational fishers and some of the people picking up the frames. One meeting led to a recreational fisher inviting a person to go fishing for the first time.

Kai Ika hopes to grow further in Auckland because there is still more fish waste it could collect.

Dallas says they employ two full-time filleters, five part-timers behind the scenes and several others who do the collecting and distribution.

They want to focus on perfecting the Auckland operation but already are speaking to groups in Tauranga and Porirua East who want to set up similar projects to use locally harvested fish.

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For more information:

Kaiika website


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