The drive from Auckland to Leigh is dark at five in the morning, darker still the longer we roll away from city lights. The fishing village is on the western end of Omaha Cove, New Zealand, some 60 miles from Auckland. A little after eight, the sun will creep out, casting a purple hue against the dark clouds of early morning. But for now, rolling into the parking lot at Leigh Fisheries, it still feels like night. A sign that reads “Lee Fish” is suspended like a medallion in the sky.
My colleague is snoring in the passenger’s side when I nudge him that we’re here. We’re shortly greeted by Sam Birch, the Sales and Marketing Manager for Leigh Fisheries of New Zealand. His enthusiasm upon seeing us is both genuine and contagious. We’ve been going back and forth via email for the past week and it’s nice to finally put a face to a name, especially one as kind as Birch’s. He shuns the formality of his title at the company; his simple job description is, “I’m just joining the dots between good fish and chefs who want good fish.”
We’re here on a hunch: that something special is happening in this small coastal town full of independent fishermen and mongers. We connected with Birch when the proprietors of Auckland’s famed sushi restaurant cocoro suggested we pay him and his team a visit.
Birch is wearing wellies and a white waterproof apron. He’s offered to spend the morning showing us around and introducing us to the staff and, more importantly, the fish. He hands us each a hair net as well as a pair of covers to slip on over our shoes. He warns that it’s wet in back where the employees are hard at work, scaling, filleting and sorting the daily catch before it ships out to its respective destinations.
Today, Leigh Fisheries NZ, the origin of the global operation and still its center, is the seafood supplier to over 120 restaurants across New Zealand. More commonly known as “Lee Fish” (the phonetic spelling of Leigh), the fishery operates alongside other sister operations in Switzerland, Singapore and Los Angeles under the umbrella name Lee Group. The Lee Fish label carries a reputation for premium quality that’s respected among the highest in the industry, proven by its place in the kitchens of New Zealand’s leading chefs, including Josh Emmet of Seafarers and Makaoto Tokuyama of cocoro.
The reason for this renown is related to the way each fish is sourced by the independent fishermen who sell to Lee Fish; 100 independently operated boats currently fish for the company around different ports of the North Island. After each fish is caught on a longline (wherein fishermen use a single line with baited hooks at intervals, as opposed to conventional trawling methods), it’s killed with a spike that destroys its brain instantly. This process prevents the fish from flapping itself to death, which releases sour-tasting lactic acid into its flesh.
Though humane and instantaneous, the technique, called “ikijime” (from Japanese), is only practiced on a small scale across the world, and usually only performed to meet the discerning demanding of high-end sushi markets in Japan. “A lot of my US customer have never heard of it”, says Birch. “It’s definitely very, very rare.”
The fishermen of Leigh, however, which Birch places among the “one percent” of the global commercial sector, were taught the method more than 30 years ago. In 1982, a Japanese purveyor from the company Castle Trading, Toyoshima San, realized the potential of New Zealand’s marine resources and planned to hone them for his home chefs. The prized catch that drew him was the New Zealand Snapper (also called the Australasian Snapper, or Pagrus auratus), which is a type of sea bream, its main distinction from the snapper found around the coasts of the United States.
“Not many countries have that same species”, says Birch. “It’s a really pink color.” The New Zealand Snapper is a common staple in Japanese culture and an integral part of Osechi, a style of Japanese cuisine that’s eaten to celebrate the New Year. “It’s a really special fish for them”, says Birch. “They call it a Tai snapper, which is associated with the word medatai“, which translates to “happy” or “joyous”. “[Toyoshima San] arranged for several of our fishers to go to Japan and learn the ikijime method”, he says. “Now those fishers have passed down their knowledge to younger fishers.” Today, it’s standard practice, and the company endorses no other.
To Birch and the restaurants that source the ikijime-killed fish, the difference is substantial. “It’s no longer got that fishy flavor. It’s cleaner, the texture is better. It gets a firmness to it — in a good way”, he says. Shortening the fish’s trauma through ikijime also extends its shelf life, slowing rigor mortis to preserve the ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) of its muscles. The result is a fish that can go up to a week before rotting. By contrast, a fish caught by trawling only has two to three days before turning. “If you knew the timelines behind [most commercial] fish”, says Birch, “you’d freak out as a consumer.”
He leads us back to the sorting room, where a bulk of Leigh Fisheries NZ’s 30 in-house employees can be found on these early mornings. The room is bright, basking under fluorescent light while the small task forces handle different parts of the daily routine. I’m taken with how clean the space is. There are no foul odors, no dirty floors. The range of fish species depends on the season, but Birch says that Lee Fish handles somewhere around 15 species on any given day. In addition to snapper, the regulars here include tarakihi, trevally, John Dory and blue cod, all caught individually by longlining methods before receiving the ikijime. Every fish that leaves this room is stored on ice and labeled with both its name and the fisherman and boat that caught it.
Speaking for New Zealand as a whole, the fishing industry is “really transparent”, says Birch. “Every single area of our coast is broken into groups for each species”, with a quota on the amount of fish that can be caught in each section that’s regulated and adjusted on an annual basis. “We’re at the forefront of the world in terms of what we do”, he says, likening New Zealand’s respectful regulations to that of its native Maori. “Kaimoana was what they called it, ‘seafood’. Kai being ‘food’ and moana being ‘ocean’. The coastline is extremely rich. Not just with fish, but with abalone and lobster. Even back then they took it upon themselves to protect those resources. There was a guardianship. Even now, it’s a huge part of our culture.”
Birch points to longlining methods along with the ikijime as extra steps toward sustainability. “But the cool thing”, he says, “is that that also creates a quality. Sustainability and quality, that’s what our company is about.” The distinction of Lee Fish becomes clear: it’s implementing niche practice into standard practice, ideals into action, and supports the notion that quality over quantity is formula for long-term success. Birch looks proud of what he’s a part of. And he should be. This kind of earnest respect toward one’s traditions and natural resources is something everyone can get behind.