Early attitudes to fish
In New Zealand, Māori were the first fishers – they depended largely on fish and shellfish for protein. When European sailors brought over pigs in the late 1700s, there was suddenly a ready supply of meat on land. Sheep and cattle followed in the 1800s. European settlers saw little need to fish when there was so much food on the land.
Many British migrants were reluctant to eat fish because they considered it fit only for poor people. They were also unfamiliar with New Zealand’s fish species. They named many of the fish they found after what they knew – cod, mullet and herring. Although the sea around their new homeland teemed with fresh seafood, the British imported cured, salted and canned fish from home.
Until the Second World War the New Zealand fishery was characterised by little fleets of small vessels. Boats were owner-operated, and they sailed from a number of ports supplying local markets. Exports were minor. The Wellington experience is typical of the early fishing scene in New Zealand. In the mid to late 1800s Shetlanders, Italians, English and French fetched up on Wellington’s shores and soon realised what Māori had long known – Cook Strait abounded with blue cod, snapper, groper, warehou and crayfish. Fishing settlements sprang up, creating distinct communities at Paremata, Makara, Island Bay and Eastbourne.
In the South Island, small craft worked inshore fisheries such as Otago Harbour, which served the growing city of Dunedin. Small-scale family operations dominated the fishing scene for decades. Prior to refrigeration, fish-curing sheds and smokehouses were built at small ports around the coast.
Oysters were an early boom-and-bust fishery. Both rock and dredge varieties were exported in their millions over the 1880s, but by the 1890s beds were stripped and the fishery collapsed.
In the early days, fish had to be distributed quickly, before it spoiled. Fish hawkers would take fish into towns on horse-drawn carts, calling out their wares and selling it door to door. Once ice could be made, fish was displayed in shop windows. One fishmonger had a penchant for gimmicks. At Hurcomb’s in Cuba Street, Wellington, a penguin was stationed at the door and fed fish, which would disappear in one neat gulp.
Although fish-curing and canning plants had been trialled, the fishing industry remained small until the advent of refrigeration. Refrigerated shipping allowed the first consignment of frozen fish to be exported – some 16 tonnes were sent to Sydney in 1890. With refrigeration came ice making, and fishmongers displayed the catch of the day on beds of ice in their shop windows.
On shore, fish could be kept frozen in isolated places far from markets. Freezers appeared at localities as remote as Port Pegasus in southern Stewart Island. However, refrigerated space was often limited, and there was nowhere to store over-supplies. Irregular shipping services and poor roads made it difficult to transport seafood to markets. Once rail services were established, fish could be transported quickly and easily. This proved important for port towns such as Ōamaru, which sent its fish to Christchurch and Dunedin. From Napier, wagons of fish trundled down the line to Wellington.
However, it took time for refrigeration to become established. Only in the 1930s did refrigerated space became widely available, allowing a small export industry to develop. In addition, different fish species needed different cool or freezing conditions to maintain their quality, and it took time for this knowledge to develop.