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Fleur Sullivan: Moeraki’s indomitable Slow Fish champion
Fleurs Place, in Moeraki, is one of New Zealand’s best-loved restaurants, and many people call it the best seafood restaurant in the country. However, Fleur Sullivan never even wanted to start a restaurant when she first came to Moeraki nearly 20 years ago. That’s just how things ended up after she started trying to help people out.
Thinking this month about Slow Fish – which is about preserving traditional fishing communities and connecting people more directly with the fish they eat, as much as it is about protecting marine reserves – Moeraki is an interesting case study. It illustrates just how vulnerable such fishing communities in Aotearoa have become in recent decades.
Ask most people what it is they like about Fleurs Place and, in addition to the beautiful setting and homely atmosphere (not to mention Fleur herself, who personally greets nearly every guest as if they’re old friends), a common answer will be its simplicity and honesty.
Fleur serves wholesome, simple, delicious food made with high quality local ingredients – including fresh fish caught by local Moeraki fishers, landed right on the dock beside the restaurant door. It seems like a simple enough model: put a restaurant by the jetty of a sleepy old fishing village, and serve fish straight off the boats. But as anyone who knows anything about commercial New Zealand fisheries will know, this “simple” set up is anything but simple.
In order to do what she does, Fleur has had to jump over, and find her own creative ways around, every kind of legislative, political and bureaucratic obstacle you can imagine. “Ask any pioneer”, she says, “and it’s the same thing: you’ve got to be a guinea pig.”
When Fleur first moved to Moeraki in the early 2000s, she had no plans or desire to start a restaurant. She had already had plenty of that after 20 years at her beloved Oliver’s in Clyde, which (along with the old Dunstan Hotel she had previously done up) had played a big part in revitalising the former Central Otago gold mining town into a boutique tourist destination. Instead, she came to Moeraki for a lifestyle change, simply wanting to “have a bit of fun smoking a bit of fish”. She also wanted to learn about local seaweed, wild herbs, and regional flora and fauna, hoping that she could live as simply as possible off the land and sea, while also encouraging others to do the same and perhaps showing them how. At that time, however, she was invited to go out on the boats with local fishermen – and there, her brain was kicked up a few gears, the ideas started flowing, and she was moved back into action.
Out on the boats, she was fascinated by how much of the fish got thrown overboard, legally, after the fish were filleted. These discards – including heads, frames, livers, roe, skin, wings and other bits – were, as she saw it, food, and they should be used for feeding and nourishing people. Therefore, she set about trying to intercept it.
She started asking local fishermen if, rather than chucking this stuff overboard, they would save it and give it to her – to be fair, the fishermen, traditionally, didn’t regard this as waste, since they saw it as re-entering the marine food chain. Fleur used these fish bits to make beautiful stocks and broths, as well as delicious smoked fish, which she gave or sold to people out of her caravan on the side of the road.
Bit by bit, however, things got more complicated. Long story short, Fleur needed to have a permanent space, as well as control over her own fish supply. Fleur is a bit of a legend in New Zealand food and hospitality circles. She has garnered a reputation as being a kind of renegade hero for doing just this kind of thing – sticking to her values, not being deterred, and not being afraid to stand up to everybody, from local council to big business, in the name of what she feels is right, reasonable, and fair. Therefore, she didn’t really see these issues as a problem: more like a challenge. This got her wandering into, and eventually through, the thick forest of legislation, bureaucracy and corporate interests surrounding seafood supply in New Zealand since the introduction of the Quota Management System (QMS) in 1986.
Now, Fleur can land whole fish straight to the restaurant doorstep, meaning that she, and her staff, can gut and fillet the fish themselves. That means they can keep the skins, frames, heads, livers, roe and other bits to smoke or make stock from, knowing for certain that they are fresh off the boat, and fresh off the filleting knife.
However, getting to that point wasn’t exactly easy. Nor cheap.
To start with, Fleur decided to do something that very few restaurant owners would bother doing: she bought her own fishing quota. She had to pay double its listed value, too, in order for the quota owner to agree to “break rank” with conglomerates. Then, she needed to get somebody – a registered commercial fisher, with a special permit – to catch her fish for her. Under the QMS, however, “only Licensed Fish Receivers (LFRs) are allowed to receive fish for sale”. Therefore, even for the fish caught on her quota, by a registered local fisher, and landed right outside her restaurant, Fleur wouldn’t be legally able to receive that fish unless she herself was also a registered LFR. This license incurs a hefty application fee, which most small-scale operators can’t swallow (which is why many fishers, even those who fish their own quota, have deals with large LFRs like Sanfords, Talley’s, Moana and Sealords).
It’s a good thing to have fish stocks monitored and managed, of course, and the QMS, at least in theory, had good environmental reasons behind it. However, the fact that Fleurs stands out as exceptional, rather than normal, illustrates how the disconnect between the fish we eat and where it comes from has, for most New Zealanders, become enormous. Fleur is lucky to have been able to get her own quota, and to have local fishers who can catch it for her – but this isn’t always the case, and even in Moeraki, it’s been hard for traditional fishers to survive within the current system.
Since people first settled in Moeraki, they have always looked to the sea for survival. The Moeraki peninsula had been periodically occupied by different Maori groups for hunting and fishing, as early as the 13th century, before a European whaling station was established in 1836 at the location of the current township. Although whaling died out within a decade, the settlement at Moeraki remained an important North Otago port, even rivalling Oamaru, until the 1870s, from which point on it remained a small but busy fishing village for over a century. Then, things changed.
In the 1970s, commercial trawling around New Zealand took off, and by the early 1980s, New Zealand’s exclusive fishing area (thanks to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) had jumped from a mere 12 miles to 200 nautical miles, suddenly giving us the sixth-largest Exclusive Economic (fishing) Zone in the world. Then, in 1986, the Fisheries Amendment Act introduced the Quota Management System (QMS), which effectively made the right to fish (for sale) within that 200 mile zone a commodity that could be bought, traded and sold. The combination of these factors has, subsequently, heavily favoured industrial fishing and big entities, at the expense of small, locally based fishers. It has also, within half a century, turned New Zealand’s seafood industry from an inward-looking, domestic market, to one that exports around 80% of our total catch overseas.
At the time when the QMS was introduced in the mid-1980s, there were still over 30 local fishermen operating small day boats out of Moeraki Harbour, selling their fresh catch at the big fish shed by the water. Today, only two fishermen are left. The big fish shed is gone – it was pulled down by the company who bought (and still own) the land on which it stood, before moving all of their operations, along with their Area 3 quota (which for some species stretches from Marlborough to Southland, and for other species encompasses the entire country), out of Moeraki. Furthermore, one of those two remaining local fishermen, were it not for Fleur buying his catch, would have essentially been put out of business just a few years ago, when one of the big seafood-processing companies told him that it was no longer worth them travelling down to Moeraki to collect his catch, so he would have to relocate to Timaru if he wanted to continue fishing for them. These are examples of how small communities like Moeraki have, as Fleur says, “had their hearts and guts ripped out of them”.
The philosophy and values behind Slow Fish have always been central to what Fleur does in Moeraki. In fact, when she first moved to Moeraki nearly 20 years ago, she says she “essentially [just wanted to] lead the slow food movement here”. She had heard about the slow food movement overseas, and she “wanted everybody in the industry to know about this beautiful thing going on”. Seeing that more and more local Moeraki fishermen were struggling and disappearing each year, therefore, she wanted to do something to help them.
At that time, she hosted meetings and tried to start a local fishers collective to brainstorm ideas: one such idea was to build a big tin shed on a very visible piece of land she had bought, near the turnoff from State Highway 1 (where her iconic old fishing boat still sits), where they could put in a commercial kitchen and a fish market. Here, they could sell both fresh and smoked fish, have a live crayfish tank, do cooking classes and filleting classes, hold demonstrations, have a seating or cafe area, put some toilets and showers in, and make it a real reason for people to stop in (or come to) Moeraki. The idea, unfortunately, ground to a halt, because she failed to get engagement from the local fishermen (many of whom were still suspicious of her motives). However, she still has hopes that something like this can be set up.
Had she not come here at all, you could argue, this historic fishing village, like so many others built on the livelihoods of multi-generational, small-scale fishers, may have slipped off into obscurity in the face of seafood’s ongoing industrialisation and corporatisation. Sure, there are still plenty of holiday-makers, recreational fishers and charter fishing operators in town, but it would be hard to imagine Moeraki having as much life – nor as many small operators who manage to survive – as it does, if it wasn’t for the publicity and steady flow of visitors her restaurant provides.
However, Fleur still feels that, in many ways, she has not yet achieved what she set out to do when she arrived in Moeraki.
Over the course of her last two years in Clyde, prior to moving to Moeraki, Fleur had started visiting food banks and engaging more closely with people living on the edge of food security. With this understanding, she hoped that she could work out some way to reach these people who weren’t as fortunate as her, nourishing them with good, healthy, delicious food, and empowering them with the skills and realisation that they can actually do it themselves. She tried to set up several projects (including something through a food bank in Oamaru), but again she was met with resistance, this time from the local council, and things froze.
She still, though, wants to reach those people doing it tough. She loves her restaurant, and the people who come to it. However, with all the costs that have accrued over the course of what Fleur has had to set up, not everybody can afford to eat there every day.
Therefore, despite the success of her restaurant, Fleur is still feverishly planning and working to set up some social initiatives, both in Moeraki and elsewhere. She has plenty of ideas, and charitable organisations have already offered her funding to get them going (which she has turned down). In addition to all these ideas, she is in the process of helping to establish New Zealand’s first official Slow Food Community, formalising some local grassroots initiatives committed to protecting the food heritage of Moeraki and the wider region.
“There are enough people like me in every crazy little town, who would have time to get on board and do these kinds of things. It’s just about being kind to each other, and getting these things started.”
In other words: “Just drop a pebble in the pond, and watch the ripples”, she says.
It’s a fitting mantra to take from someone who has already achieved and inspired so much, yet is always looking to do more. Having managed to work within the QMS to support a struggling fishing village and create an iconic restaurant, Fleur is always looking to make the best of a situation, always looking to spread positivity and community.
Finishing with that image of a rippling pond, Slow Fish again seems like an appropriate time to be paying tribute to one of New Zealand’s legendary – and utterly unique – food heroes: to what she has already achieved, and to what she can continue to inspire.
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