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WWPD? What would Papatūānuku do?

By Vivien Whyte (she/her)

Viv sat down for a kōrero with Dallas Abel, the Project Coordinator for the Kai Ika project, to talk about their kaupapa and role in moving towards a sustainable future.

When you see fish in the supermarket it may seem perfectly normal to look down and just see fillets. Looking down at these two little rectangles, it’s easy to forget the actual animal they came from. One with a head, eyes, spine, wings, and a tail.

However, these fillets only make up around 35% of the fish. Because most Kiwis only eat the fillet, the remaining 65% will end up in landfill. The Kai Ika Project aims to change this by making the most out of this 65%. The project is a collaboration between LegaSea, the Outboard Boating Club of Auckland, and Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae.

Together, they recover the previously unwanted parts of fish and turn them into healthy kai which volunteers from the marae then distribute for free to hundreds of families and community groups. Dallas Abel describes the marae as “the heart and soul of our distribution operation”.

Through their collective efforts they encourage us to rethink the way we look at food, our relationship with the environment, and highlight the importance of communities in making change.

What is the Kai Ika Project’s kaupapa?

“Firstly, we want to be the best at recovering previously unwanted fish heads and frames. Secondly, we aim to address food insecurity.

"In South Auckland there are fast food restaurants on every corner and more McDonald's than health food stores. Unfortunately, this is where we see a lot of lower socioeconomic groups [that] don’t have access to good quality kai moana. Many of whom are Polynesians who have, for hundreds and thousands of years, been eating seafood and kai moana. Yet these days, don’t have access to it. So, we’re trying to address the food insecurity of good quality, culturally appropriate kai.

"And thirdly, LegaSea is a marine conservation group. We believe that maximum utilisation is conservation. It’s basic fisheries management. How do you have more fish in the ocean? You kill less fish. And how do you kill less fish? You use more of the fish you do catch. It just makes sense.”

Utilising the whole animal is no new concept. Both my Sāmoan and Chinese ancestors knew how to respect their food and not waste two thirds of a fish just because they only wanted to eat the pretty fillet. My tīpuna understood the connection between our food and where it came from. In many other cultures, fish heads are considered an absolute delicacy. And in te reo Māori, the head of the fish is literally called rangatira kai.

Unfortunately, living in Aotearoa nowadays this food knowledge hasn’t been embedded into our food systems.

In fact, most of us will have probably seen more fish n chips on the beach than actual fish in the sea. There’s a big disconnect and dissociation with the food we buy and where it comes from. As Dallas says, “It’s so basic and it’s just strange how we’ve all adapted to just take the fillets.The fillets are the only thing people eat but they don’t think about the fact that the whole fish is edible.”

How does Kai Ika bridge the gap between what we see on supermarket shelves and the actual animal itself?

“It’s almost like fish don’t swim in the sea anymore. The only place you see them is in the supermarket or in a Filet-O-Fish burger. Or covered in breadcrumbs. And it means that people disassociate fish with the actual animal and that’s what’s being instilled in us. It’s being pushed by every retailer to just eat the fillet.”

When do we stop to think about the entire fish as an animal giving up its life for two little fillets? “Just over a third of the fish is what we consume and then the rest is out of sight, out of mind. People don’t have to worry about the fish head and frame because all they’re doing is buying a piece of crumbed hoki at Countdown.”

“As a by-product of our project we are putting the onus back on people to realise that these fish aren’t just the fillet and we need to show fish a bit more respect by utilising more of the fish. If you don’t want to use it that’s fine, just give away the rest of it to people who do want to eat it.”

What does Kai Ika’s motto “He kai te rongoa, he rongoa te kai/Food is medicine and medicine is food” mean to you?

“I’m half Fijian and I know that as a Polynesian, I respond really well to good quality kai moana. "Healthy food straight from the garden, straight from the ocean has healing powers. Both physically and mentally. This is what the Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae believe in as well. They heal people with their kai and kai moana. Even with their māra kai, they grow 10,000 kūmara every year just so they can share it with the community. Building that community around food and bringing people together to be part of something special is medicine.”

Where do you see the Kai Ika Project in the future?

“We’re really trying to push for commercial fishermen – if they can utilise more of the fish they catch, they won’t need to catch as many. For example, in Iceland they use almost 90% of the fish they harvest by also finding biochemical, pharmaceutical etc. uses for it. They don’t have to catch more fish to make more money, they just need to be smarter.”

“Economically you also see a lot more value through feeding people. We want to continue building in Auckland first as there’s a lot more we can recover. We’re recovering almost 2,000kg of fish heads and frames every week, but estimate that there’s over 10,000kg we could potentially recover. They’re right at our footstep but as a non-profit our resources are stretched to the limit. We’ve got everyone doing every little thing, helping as much as they can. With limited resources we can only do so much. Our next step is to look for more fundraising tools to make sure we can do more.”

“Our ultimate goal is to feed more families. If you recover more fish, you feed more families.”

What’s your favourite fish dish?

“Fried fish wings. The collars, throats, wings. What people don’t realise is that the discarded pieces of the fish are the most delicious, sweetest, and nutritious parts. When you think about eating a steak, you want to dig in and get all the bits close to the bones because they’re the best, tastiest parts. The same thing goes for fish. The best parts are hidden in the pockets of the wings and frame.”

“You just take the wings, flour, salt, garlic. Coat that, put it in some garlic and oil. Serve it with some rice”. Easy!

The Kai Ika project is looking to expand further by educating people on how they can turn the whole fish into pieces of protein they can cook. They have recipes for soups, stocks, smoked fish pie, cooking whole fish, taretare, and Fish Head Bee Hoon Soup. And if you’re interested in free kai, you can head to their “Free Fish Heads'' app – which facilitates peer to peer donations of fish heads. “It’s basically Tinder for fish head lovers”.

You can find out more at their website: or follow them on Instagram: the_kai_ika_project


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