Coastal kai

Featured in Capital #73
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By Benn Jeffries

Seafood is a point of pride for many New Zealanders and yet our fishing industry is in a state of disrepair.

Benn Jeffries tracked down one South Wairarapa couple who are determined to right some of the industry’s wrongs.

The mornings can be icy cold in South Wairarapa. It’s six am and the rumble of an idling truck is the only sound in the small coastal settlement of Tora. Standing in the beam of the truck headlights, Troy Bramley appears to be unfazed by the chill. He wears white gumboots stained with fish blood and a thin cotton hoody, from which his long, tangled hair spills out. We shake hands in the pre-dawn dark. His are rough – the hands of a fisherman.

Troy has lived in Tora almost all his life. Now, with his partner Claire Edwards, he runs a fishing business called Tora Collective. It’s not your usual operation, though; they work on a to-order basis, directly supplying high-end restaurants and consumers around New Zealand. Their main goal has been to put top-quality seafood back on the tables of Kiwis.

“New Zealand has had the dregs of the industry for years,” Troy explains as we drive down to the beach. “The rejects stay here. Crayfish often have legs missing and are damaged and weak. They’re held in holding tanks for months. If a crayfish dies they smell test them, tail them and then they go to the local market. Everything of quality gets shipped to the overseas market.” As the sky lightens I get more sense of Tora’s wildness; mist rises from the swell as it collides with the shore. The sky is grey and the sea a murky turquoise. The land is steep and rugged, shaped by the ocean’s attrition. The setting reminds me of an old film photograph with its washed colours and grain.

Troy parks his truck next to his boat, Tākitimu, which sits ready to be launched by a rusted old bulldozer. Tākitimu is named after the waka that first brought Māori to this part of New Zealand. It is a vessel that looks like it belongs on this harsh coast – a steel-hulled workhorse. I throw my gear on board and Isaac the deckhand fires up the bulldozer to back us into the sea.

“We’ve got an order for 40 kilos of paua and a haul of crayfish,” Troy tells me as we motor out of the bay. We stick close to the shore, weaving between rocks with trailing skirts of bull kelp. Troy explains the landscape to me, pointing out boundary lines, reef systems, and shipwrecks. The tide is low and some cattle have come down onto the exposed rocks to eat the seaweed.

“They know what the tides are doing. They’ll start wandering down just as it goes low.”

Ten kilometres north of Tora, we anchor out from a reef. A large bull seal swims on the surface, which I point out to Troy.

“Yeah, I wasn’t gonna tell you,” he laughs and starts to pull on his dive gear. “You’re still coming with me, right? I’m putting you to work mate.”

Determined to do all the city boys proud, I grudgingly pull on my wetsuit and slip over the side into the water. I tail Troy and watch as he dives down, disappearing amongst the tangled arms of kelp to surface moments later with a few more paua in his dive bag. He is as agile in the water as he is on land. I collect a measly few, then return to the boat as the chills start to set in. Troy spends another hour and a half in the water, ferrying dive bags of paua back to the boat. He returns for the final time and devours a sandwich.

“We keep track of which areas we work,” he says over a mouthful, “so we can rest them once we’ve harvested there.” Tora Collective also voluntarily stops harvesting paua during spawning, and has increased their minimum size of female crayfish by 2mm above the legal minimum.

Troy’s sandwich seems to have been inhaled, and before I can comment the anchor is hauled and we’re off pulling crayfish pots in close to the rocks. Troy measures one of these “bugs,” as they are known, and invites me to take a look. It is a female in berry, her underside  covered with thousands of tiny red eggs ready to be released. Despite handling them most days, Troy is still in awe of these creatures. He did a year of marine biology at Victoria University and while the degree was never finished, it’s clear the science still excites him. He has a deep respect for the kai moana he harvests. Crays are handled with care to ensure they are not damaged and can be returned to the sea healthy if they prove to be under size or in berry.

This order for kai moana is going to restaurants throughout New Zealand, to clients including Al Brown’s Depot in Auckland, and Wellington’s Shepherd on Eva Street and Rita in Aro Valley. All of it fresh and delivered live. During the Covid-19 lockdown, with the restaurants closed, Tora Collective began delivering direct to the consumer.

“It was a real hit,” Troy says. “People from all over were ordering from us. Cannons Creek was one of our busiest spots in Wellington. A lot of the families there normally gather kai moana themselves, so when lockdown hit they turned to us.”

After pulling a dozen pots we head back into shore. Claire, Troy’s partner, is there on the beach with the bulldozer. Back on land she takes me through the packaging of the seafood. Seaweed that has washed up on the beach is used to protect the crayfish, then it’s boxed in plant-based packaging that can be home composted.

“The ice packs are the same,” Troy says. “We fill them with Tora water. So when you get your crays and you want to boil them, you just empty your ice packs and cook them with the fresh Tora water. You can’t recreate seawater.”

Up at their house nestled amongst the bush, I stand beside a wood burner oven to warm up and entertain their new puppy, while Troy and Claire start cooking.

“We don’t eat as much seafood as people think. When you handle it all day you generally want a break from it.” Troy confesses a love for seaweed though, even admitting to bathing in paddle weed now and then.

“How do you think my skin looks so good?” he jokes.  

We sit down outside beside a brazier and get stuck into a couple of crayfish. The surrounding bush is full of bird song and I can make out the sound of the swell breaking on the shore. Troy and Claire share stories about how they got Tora Collective up and running.

“I think it was our first ever order, we had to get seventy-odd paua,” Claire tells me. “Troy lost his mask so he went down with my bright pink one on. It was rough as hell and he had to spend four hours in the water diving while I stayed on the boat throwing up over the side.” 

They both laugh at the memory, but I can see it has been a true labour of love getting the business going. Afterwards, I ask Troy what he thinks of the quota management system, which has been under heavy criticism for some years now.

“The methods need to be more sustainable. I don’t know if you have to change the whole system to take out trawling and the parts of the industry that aren’t great. There are some really good things going on in terms of science.” He explains that their take has been increased and cut at different times  “depending on what the data is saying. We had a 35% cut because the fishery wasn’t performing a couple of years ago. Those baseline things are really good.”

Troy says a lot of Kiwis don’t realise that most of New Zealand’s fishery is owned by a handful of companies. They determine where the product goes and have a great deal of sway in an industry full of faults. Family-owned quota is rare nowadays. Tora Collective was lucky and managed to buy their quota from a fisherman in Hawkes Bay.

“The old fella didn’t tell his kids that he was selling it. He wanted it to go to a fishing family, not one of the big companies. He gave us first opportunity at it, which was cool because those opportunities don’t come up much.”

Claire and Troy say they’ve been “stubbornly determined” to return quality seafood to New Zealanders and do it sustainably. They say it’s about doing something that’s right for the environment.  “It’s cost us more, for sure,” Claire says. “But we’re here now.”

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