Local Flavour, Global Taste

A scenic road winds out to the small coastal community of Leigh - 15 minutes drive from Matakana, it’s the home of Leigh Fisheries. Originally founded as a co-op by pioneering fishermen in 1957, it’s humming and busy, operating from its original site at 10 Pakiri Road. In the last sixty years, it has developed from a local smokehouse to a dynamic, global business; an expert in supplying high quality, fresh-as-it-gets, wild caught fish. 

Inside the chilled processing rooms of Leigh Fisheries works a tight-knit, efficient team sorting and packing the latest fresh catch - caught between Houhora in the north and Leigh in the south, plus some in Tauranga. Tom Searle, operations manager, lifts lids of icy bins revealing a colourful array of fish which includes metallic grey Blue Nose, polka-dot Snapper and an almighty Hapuka destined for Omaha’s Sculptureum restaurant. Snapper is the predominant species caught, along with Gurnard, John Dory, Trevally and Tarakihi. A small percentage of sought-after fish are caught at the same time, such as the brilliantly orange Scorpion Fish and the silver Frost Fish. Many species caught and handled here are completely unique globally and most are shipped whole.

A trade relationship with Japan during the 80s and 90s saw a high standard of produce achieved as the most discerning seafood nation on Earth demanded the best. The ‘Ike-Jimi’ method was learned - a swift, humane way of killing the fish which results in cleaner meat. Adopted from their Asian clientele’s translation, the company’s brand name spelling of ‘Lee’, for their supplying arm, was acquired at this time. Today, the Lee Fish group has sister companies in NZ, Asia, the US and Europe which market and distribute seafood to restaurants, supermarkets and wholesalers around the globe. Leigh Fisheries, the parent company which does the catching, retains its original spelling.

Lee Fish's whole business model is about having produce delivered to buyers as soon as possible; enabling a level of freshness that’s unique to them. If you’re a chef in Auckland, you’ll have yesterday’s prime catch in time for dinner service. If you’re in Sydney, there’s just 24 hours from your fish being pulled from the sea to it landing on your plate. 

Another main difference is their dedication to sustainable practice. An ethos of quality over quantity is evident. Alongside honouring NZ’s Quota Management Systems, their main catch method is long-lining. Unlike trawling, long-lining has minimal impact on the seafloor’s unique ecosystem. Fish are caught individually on circle hooks, brought up and handled one at a time which is more humane and results in better produce. This small-scale process enables fishers to better manage their practice. Each box of produce is labelled with the day, species, vessel and even who caught it. “It’s not just the quota they abide by, it’s also how they are handled and the end product that is delivered to the buyer - there’s accountability through the whole process,” Tom says. The fishers are independent (as opposed to employees) and many of them tend to be from local, generational fishing families. 

Sam Birch manages sales and marketing for Lee Fish NZ - a Leigh boy originally, his father was a ‘long-liner’. “The culinary scene has really developed in NZ in the last 5-10 years,” says Sam. “A lot of kiwi chefs were away overseas...working with Lee Fish, then they started coming back and asking for us. We work closely with 38 of the metro top 50 restaurants - Cocoro, Orphan’s Kitchen, Cassia, Sky City’s The Grill, Masu, Waiheke’s Archive and Mudbrick…” The list goes on to include top restaurants in Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. Locally, Sawmill Brewery and Sculptureum are huge supporters. “What they do is very creative, very different” Sam enthuses. 

Awareness of ethical and sustainable practices continues to grow in the food industry. Buyers and diners both have a keen interest and there’s a real sense of provident management of resources while speaking with Sam. “We strive for transparency in our relations,” Sam says, “It’s very rich. The whole food world is moving that way.”  Impressively, within the workings of this fast-paced operation, there’s daily contact with chefs - an integrated communication system courses through the business. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Sam, “we are breaking down the barrier between the producer and the buyer, the fishermen and the chefs.” 

In a tradition as old as the ocean is deep, Leigh Fisheries has been the life-blood of the community for 50 years and these days they are still a massive employer in the region. “We are touching the tables in the wider community,” says Tom. Leigh Fisheries continues their generous involvement in the community by donating to Leigh and Matakana schools’ annual fundraisers and supporting local events and groups such as Leigh Bowling Club, Bridge Club and Returned Services. From humble beginnings, Lee Fish now has a wide reach around the globe inspiring an antithesis to mainstream commercial fishing and expectations of quality. This is a company founded on initiative, innovation and excellence.

www.leefish.co.nz (live late February)


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