Tom Hishon spotlights sustainable seafood at his restaurant, kingi, working with independent suppliers to nurture fish stocks and the ocean. He spoke to Jeremy Hansen as part of our Seven Plans for a Better Planet interview series. 

Jeremy Hansen: Tom, you opened kingi with the intention of promoting sustainable fishing. What does that term mean to you – and what can a restaurant hope to teach people about it?

Tom Hishon: Sustainability has different meanings to different people. How I’ve defined it with kingi is through the selection of fish we put on the menu, the catch method and the suppliers we work with. To me, it all stems from how the produce is harvested or farmed and the positive effect it has on its environment. It was a challenge for me to see if it was a possibility for a seafood restaurant to be able to live up to that in New Zealand. I wanted to show that it is possible and that, through ethically sourcing produce from the right suppliers, it can create more awareness for both our guests and within the fishing industry. There need to be urgent changes to the way we fish on a global scale and I believe New Zealand could and should be leading this change.

JH: So if somebody comes to eat at kingi, what can they be assured of before they even order?

TH: They can have peace of mind that whatever they choose off the menu is ethical in terms of how and where it’s caught, the pressure that’s on the fish stock. These values interlink with the selection of produce. We believe in provenance with seafood and in its traceability. We give a bit of a shout-out to the fishing crews via our menu and talk about the boat, catch method and the place the fish has come from, so people can really understand the how, where, what and why through our actions. Its really important to note that we don’t support any companies that have a negative impact on the seabed or fishing stocks. There are a few large companies in New Zealand that harvest seafood from the ocean in an extremely unsustainable way using indiscriminate, mobile bottom-contact fishing methods such as dredging, trawling or Danish seining – there is a huge amount of by-catch [aquatic species and seabirds that get caught in nets and are dumped], over-fishing and seabed degradation from the way they fish. We don’t support these companies nor these fishing practices. They should be illegal. 

JH: How do you tell people that it’s okay to eat fish? Many people think the best way they can help the planet is by becoming vegan.

TH: That’s a good question and something I’ve put a lot of thought into. If we can respect and manage our ocean’s fish stocks correctly, the biomass has the ability to repair itself and get to a far more sustainable mass. It’s understanding the intricacies of our fishery on a case-by-case scenario, listening more to what the science and numbers are telling us, where the pressure is, what we’re sourcing. Again, it comes back to how we’re sourcing this fish. We also put a lot of trust in our suppliers to keep us in the loop. We support independent fishing operators, and another really positive element of doing that is that it’s in their best interests to fish for the future. It’s their livelihood, they want their children and their children’s children to be out fishing in their same community and to have that income coming back into their family for generations. So it is definitely in their best interests to maintain healthy fish stocks and practices.

JH: Can you tell me specifically about some of the independent fishing operators that you work with that exemplify the values you’re talking about?

TH: A fantastic example would be the team at Chatham Island Food Co. They’re working with about 30 different fishers from around the Chatham Islands. They’re locals and have quota or lease quota for blue cod, crayfish, paua and kina. They fish ethically and the value of what they sell has increased by way of educating the customer around their provenance. They’re generating more value from their products and that gets passed on to the local community and stays with families on the island. The Chathams is one of the last fishing communities in New Zealand, so it’s cool to see that sustainable fishing can help that endure. 

JH: What kinds of things are they doing to be more sustainable there?

TH: One example is they’ve worked with a collective of fishing operators on the islands to increase the size of the nets they use on their pots. Pot fishing is a really sustainable way to fish because there’s no by-catch – the gaps are sized so that the juvenile cod can get out. And it’s working – they have such an abundant fishery there, especially with blue cod. And I think it all comes down to the way that they collectively work and the fact that they’re all invested in the same outcome, which is to protect and manage their own natural resource around the island. They’ve learned from past experience, like lots of fishing communities. There have been tough times where they’ve put too much pressure on the crayfish and paua industry. Now at certain times throughout the year now there is rāhui put on crayfish, they take a break from fishing blue cod over summer when they are spawning, and there is also an annual meeting held by the paua divers on the island to discuss what areas they will target where the stocks are strong for the coming season and what areas they will leave. It makes perfect sense.

JH: What can people do if they’re consumers that aren’t necessarily eating at kingi, but are buying fish to eat at home? How can they buy fish in an ethical way?

TH: I’d like to encourage people to get out there and gather it yourself, share with family and friends and don’t waste anything. We are a country surrounded by the ocean and it is one of the most incredible gifts we have. Try and shop local and support people within the community who have direct links with the fishing operators. There’s a few of them around. You can buy a box of blue cod from the team at the Chatham Island Food Co and have it delivered to your door. If you’re at the supermarket, mussels are probably the better things to buy, because they’re farmed and being a bi-valve they have a positive impact on the environment and don’t need to be fed like farmed salmon. Sadly, most supermarkets support unethical companies here and across the globe.

Illustration by Lucy Han

Tom Hishon on a fishing boat off the Chatham Islands, on a recent trip on which he worked with one of the suppliers to his Britomart restaurant, kingi. Photograph by Troy Goodall.