New Zealand is famous for its natural beauty, from snow-capped mountain ranges and labyrinthine cave systems to magnificent old-growth forests and unspoiled coastlines. But you’re missing half of what’s on offer if you don’t take a look beneath sea level. The aquamarine waters that surround New Zealand’s islands are not only gorgeous, but they teem with abundant life.
This undersea world is all the more bewitching thanks to the country’s strict adherence to sustainable fishing practices. Keeping New Zealand’s oceans and inland waterways pristine—and the seafood protected—is a matter of national pride. Doing so not only ensures that high-quality foods, which range from rich golden-hued salmon to dainty langoustines, are at their flavorful best by the time they hit your plate; it also secures the long-term health of these bodies of water, not to mention the fisherpeople (and increasingly, the populations) who depend upon them.
It’s a commitment that’s on full display by the nation’s seafood producers and fisheries. Companies like Sealord and Sanford are blazing a path forward with new catching methods like Tiaki, designed to minimize harm to caught fish by allowing them to swim freely within the net—and allow small, unwanted bycatch fish to escape. Okains Bay is preserving the environment by using biodiesel and recyclable packing materials, Māori-owned Ngāti Porou is applying the Māori value of kaitiakitanga and the practice of rahui to protect fish stocks through careful conservation and rotation, and salmon fisheries such as Ōra King and Mt. Cook Alpine Salmon are pioneering traceability with unique tags for individual fish, ensuring that every home cook knows exactly where their food came from. All this innovation—plus the fact that 94 percent of commercial catch comes from sustainably managed fish stocks—just reinforces New Zealand’s position as a worldwide leader in seafood sustainability.
Hungry for a taste of sustainable New Zealand seafood? Here’s where to start.
Silver sea bream are fascinating animals. By the time they’re four years old, half of the population changes sex. But no matter the gender, these fish boast tender flesh with a mild, agreeable flavor. They’re great in tacos—charred over a barbecue and tossed into fresh corn tortillas piled high with queso and salsa—or try them sauteed with butter and capers in a hot pan.
Not only are stocks of New Zealand silver sea bream stable these days, but they’re also prospering: In 2016, government officials upped catch limits after a survey revealed that populations had exploded. Check your local fish market to get your hands on a filet, or check the stockists here.
With pinkish-red, blue-flecked skin, all of the large-headed fish of this species begin their lives as females.
If you’ve never heard of hoki, it’s time to study up. Their meat is mild-tasting and flaky, making hoki the perfect fish for deep-frying. Bread some filets and serve up British-style with chips—that’s French fries, of course—or stuff them inside a brioche bun for a plate of over-the-top fish sandwiches.
Hoki live in deep water, sometimes as low as 3,000 feet below sea level. They’re typically caught by trawl, but New Zealand hoki have the distinction of being among the best-managed trawl fisheries on the globe. Certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, the New Zealand fishery adheres to strict catch limits to keep populations healthy. Filets are available at places like Webstaurant Store in large quantities, but check your local fish market for individual purchases.
Blue-silver with hits of dark purple, hoki have immediately identifiable, long and thin bodies that verge on eel-like, though they’re closely related to cod.
There’s nothing quite like King salmon. Silver-skinned with bright orange flesh, the fish’s buttery texture and complex, savory flavor has rightfully earned obsessives in all hemispheres; in fact, Ōra King and Regal New Zealand King Salmon won a “Best Choice” from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (owned by New Zealand King Salmon Co.), becoming the first farmed salmon to do so. While technically not native, they’ve thrived in the cold, fast-flowing rivers along the South Island’s east coast. The naturally high oil content in Ōra King salmon can be seen in the striking marbled fat lines within its bright orange flesh, prompting some to call it the Wagyu beef of salmon.
All King salmon in New Zealand begin their lives in freshwater farms, which are strictly regulated by the government. Everything from what the fish are fed to how farms deal with waste is carefully managed, ensuring that the industry is as sustainable as possible. Finally, the highest-quality salmon are hand selected by a master grader and branded “Ōra King.” These unique salmon are individually numbered for traceability.
In the U.S., New Zealand King salmon is available in all manner of ways. Go for fresh sushi-grade filets (like these dense-fleshed beauties from Catalina Offshore Products), wonderful for packing into homemade nori hand rolls. Alternatively, opt for a skin-on filet (like those at Fulton Fish Market) for an elegant pan-fried dish perfect for dinner parties. And if you’re really feeling adventurous? Snap up a whole fish—stuff it with herbs and lemon slices, then give it a spin on a hot grill. You can find more stateside stockists here.
Salmon were introduced to New Zealand waters in the early 20th century.
Spindly langoustines, called scampi in New Zealand, roam Kiwi seas down to 2,500 feet below the surface. Managed by the country’s Quota Management System, langoustine stocks are generally considered robust across the country.
Langoustines’ delicate-tasting white flesh is a perfect match for garlic, butter, and an herbaceous hit of parsley. We like to saute it all together in a hot pan and serve over a steaming bed of angel hair pasta, complemented by a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Langoustine can be found online through the famed Fulton Fish Market, specialty purveyor Regalis Foods, and other fish markets.
Langoustines, with their long, narrow claws and distinctive orange-pink banding, may look like a species of prawn, but they’re actually a type of wild lobster.
Also known by its Māori name, koura, rock lobster is one of New Zealand’s most important seafood exports, prized by discerning palates from China to the United States. Found along the country’s rocky coastline, an abundant rock lobster population fueled a bustling export business in the early 20th century.
Often sold frozen in the U.S. by seafood purveyors like Southern Rocklobster USA, rock lobster is fantastic when simply poached and served in mayo-slathered buns—New Zealand lobster rolls, anyone?—or sauteed with herbed butter alongside a hearty baked potato.
Overfishing nearly depleted New Zealand's stock of rock lobster, but regulations developed in the late 1980s have helped bring them back from the brink.
Distinctive for their dark, emerald-hued exterior, greenshell mussels are unique to New Zealand, with flesh that ranges in hue from a creamy white to sunrise orange. Plump and smacking of the sea, greenshells have a rich flavor that’s a perfect match for all manner of preparations. Toss them into a coconut-spiked curry enhanced with pungent fish sauce, or cook them on the halfshell on a hot barbecue grill and serve simply with a spritz of lemon.
You can chow down with a clear conscience: Greenshell mussels are among the most sustainable seafood options around. Successful greenshell mussel aquaculture means there’s less of a strain on wild populations, ensuring that the waters around New Zealand will long be home to this bivalve. Find them frozen at your local fish market.
As one of the world’s most successfully farmed mussels, New Zealand greenshells are subject to a strict license that monitors any given farm’s size and activities.
Smooth and cylindrical, arrow squid offer meat that’s firm and slightly sweet. It’s perfect for charring, Greek-style, over a hot, open flame (served with plenty of lemon, of course), but equally delicious deep-fried for a classic Italian-inflected calamari fritti.
If possible, opt for squid that’s caught by jiggers—a type of specialized vessel and method specifically designed for catching squid. Ask at your local fish market for insights.
White with bronze accents, New Zealand’s arrow squid are actually two different species—N. gouldi and N. sloanii—but they’re virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Even if you’ve never eaten an abalone (or as the Māori say, pāua), you’ve probably seen its shell. Iridescent with tones of blue, purple, and green, the abalone shell’s interior is prized for jewelry and art. But the meat within the shell is prized, too, particularly in Asian cultures. Saute it simply with butter, garlic, lemon juice, and umami-rich dashi broth—then serve with a cold, dry sake.
Part of abalone’s mystique is that it’s difficult to obtain. In most areas in New Zealand, abalone can be harvested only by hand. Well-trained free divers spend their days swimming into the deeps to procure abalone, which can sell for exorbitant prices. Strict limits on catch quantities and abalone size help keep populations healthy. Check with your local fishmonger as to where you can find them, or locate a nearby stockist here.
Similar to squid in texture, the abalone’s flesh has an almost steak-like flavor.
Plump with round, sometimes green-tinged shells, New Zealand cockles are a delight. Delicate, creamy flesh is an exquisite vehicle for butter and garlic, not to mention sweet mirin-spiked soy and pungent Chinese black beans. Cockles are also decadent in a bowl of velvety, cream-infused seafood chowder, served alongside a crusty slice of sourdough.
New Zealand cockles like to live in the sandy shallows of beaches of the North and South islands. Cockles are considered some of New Zealand’s most sustainable seafood. Find them at local fish markets in the U.S.
New Zealand cockles are caught by hand, a method which has an incredibly low environmental impact.