Hoki is one of the cheapest seafood options available at the counter, and with about 150,000 tonnes earmarked to be caught this year, it is also one of the most readily available.

But Kiwi palates have grown up on inshore fish like snapper and tarakihi, which is much easier to access than the deep-sea hoki, lurking about 500 metres below the surface.

As such, domestic hoki demand is negligible, with the flaky fish considered "somewhat underrated" in New Zealand. For Nelson and Auckland-based Sealord, however, the plan is to turn hoki, the country's second most valuable export, into one day being the white fish alternative to salmon.

Industry body Seafood New Zealand said fresh hoki had steadily become more available in recent years, and was expected to continue to grow.

And at anywhere between $9 and $15 a kilogram, it is as cheap, if not cheaper, than most meat sold in the supermarket.

"Hoki is also an extremely economical choice, ideal for budget-conscious families, and offers the additional benefit of versatility," Seafood NZ said.

Frozen, the fish is classically popular as battered or crumbed fillets, or in a burger, but it is also said to have a "mild flavour", which means fresh hoki is versatile as well.

Hoki is also said to be a good source of selenium, which is important for a healthy immune system, as well as a contributor to the normal growth and development of children.

Sealord fishing general manager Doug Paulin, however, said most New Zealanders had grown up eating inshore fish, like snapper, and tastes had not yet shifted to deep-water species, such as hoki.

And he does not believe hoki consumption will necessarily take off here, despite the abundance and cheaper price, because there is simply limited demand.

"Just because you get those massive, huge volumes of deep-sea fish, doesn't mean New Zealanders really are in that much of a hurry to go and eat them," he said. "I don't mean that disparagingly, we can only eat so many fish, we're four million people."

Paulin said most fish sold here were relatively expensive compared with other meats.

Statistics New Zealand figures said in August that a kilogram of beef ranged from $15 to $25.

Chicken breast was about $17, while pork and lamb chops were slightly cheaper at about $16 and $15 a kilogram.

But snapper fillets were closer to $29 a kilogram, and other inshore fish such as tarakihi and blue nose only slightly cheaper.

Paulin said New Zealanders had no idea how spoilt they were in terms of the different fish they were able to eat on any given day.

"If you go overseas they're just blown away. We don't have massive quantities, but in terms of breadth, unbelievable, because you get that level of access."

Hoki could be sold for as cheap as about $9 a kilogram, and up to $15 out of season, he said, but access to the deep sea fishery was a big barrier to demand.

The country's inshore preference meant it was more valuable for Sealord to export the vast majority of the hoki it caught.

"Particularly when there's value to be had offshore in other markets where the population base is huge, so they're prepared to pay more money for a fish which might be getting volume in New Zealand, but is then niche in a big market.

"This is about bringing more value to the species that we sell."

And this is exactly what Sealord is currently trying to do, as it starts fishing for new market opportunities for hoki.

Sealord owns about a third of New Zealand's hoki quota, which the Government increased by 20,000 tonnes for the current year, to 150,000 tonnes.

The increase was worth about $40m, and next year the total allowable commercial catch is set to increase by another 10,000 tonnes.

The seafood industry last year generated $1.52 billion in export earnings, of which about $187 million was attributable to hoki.

Only rock lobster exports were more valuable in 2013, worth $250m.

"Now hoki is not the lowest-value fish, but it's by no means the highest-value fish," Paulin said.

"But what it is, is the highest volume fish, so the work that we put into hoki is to try and lift the value on it."

For the year to September 30, 2013, Sealord posted an overall loss of $44m, down from a $3.5m profit the year before.

This was largely because of a disastrous seafood venture in Argentina, and meant the company failed to pay a dividend to its iwi and Japanese owners.

But hoki accounts for about half of Sealord's revenue, and the company has signed a deal with Woolworths in Australia which it said would double its trans-Tasman exports of fresh fish.

ON A recent trip to fish for hoki in the Cook Strait, an initial, small lot of five tonne was caught as part of a "whole hoki" trial for a customer in China who wants to import the fish without any processing whatsoever.

"Normally we wouldn't waste our time trying to collect 5 tonne of fish, it's too much hassle.

"But for an opportunity to lift value in China, through the whole hoki trial, it may come to nothing, but if it does yield good results then we're on our way to lifting that value."

Paulin said about 50 tonnes of the smaller lots were being caught, frozen, and sent directly to China, looking "like it's still basically living".

"The closer it looks to being live, the better for the China market."

Sealord already sold whole orange roughy, ruby fish and sea perch to China but these were all red fish, an important colour to the Chinese, which made it an easy sell.

But hoki, which was mostly exported to Europe and Australia, was not red, making it more difficult to gain entry. "You look at them and they don't look the most appetising fish, do they?"

Paulin said hoki was valued on the global market because it was a very white-fleshed fish which was different to the more available cod or pollock species.

Because of this, however, the price of hoki on the world market fell in between cod and pollock, which meant hoki would follow when one moved.

But the recent strength of the kiwi dollar, and a significant increase in cod quota, had pushed hoki prices above cod for the first time two years ago, which caused Sealord to lose some customers.

Others, however, continued to buy hoki because they "valued the species", Paulin said.

"So we managed to lift value, the difficulty being that it lifted as fast as the New Zealand dollar has moved in the last five years.

"Hoki prices are going up, but not as fast as the dollar, so that's why we've got to do some different things."

The hoki fishing season runs roughly from the middle of June to the middle of September, and for Sealord's China trial, and the Woolworths contract in Australia, it is using the FV Otakou, which is a "fresher".

This basically means it trawls exactly the same as other boats, but instead of processing the fish onboard after it is caught, it is cased into ice and transferred to the land-based factory.

The hoki can be caught and arrive in Australia, fully processed, in less than two days.

And while a "fresher" has only 13 crew, compared with 42 on a "frozen-at-sea" factory trawler, it is more expensive to operate, because 200 people on land are ultimately processing the fish.

"The only way you can get fresh fish is to have a fresher," Paulin said. "No one else really wants to have a go at it, because it's not easy.

"We're banking on the value in the future justifying the effort and everything going into it."

Ultimately, Sealord aspired for hoki to be like salmon in retail outlets, where it was available year-round and in a variety of formats.

At Woolworths in Australia the hoki was being displayed behind the counter with "New Zealand hoki" and "Sealord" signage, which Paulin said was unique and "a big deal".

"Now hoki's a long way off that, at the moment in most retailers you'd find it for a maximum of three months of any real scale.

"Whereas we're talking about nine months to Woolworths in Australia, and then refreshing frozen fillets for the other three months.

"So hoki will be in the counter, in sizeable volumes, for 12 months of the year, and the plan is to try and make it the white fish equivalent to salmon."


A skilled hoki fisherman is, peculiarly, better at not catching fish than he is at catching them.

The fish's abundance means fishing trawlers put more effort into evading the fish than they do into netting them. And when about 75 tonnes of it is caught in just five hours, it is quickly obvious why.

"It's a difficult fishery at times, to avoid the over-catch issue," Sealord's FV Otakou first mate Mike Sheppard explains. "It's a strange thing for a fisherman to complain about but that's the way it is. It's a good problem to have."

The Otakou leaves Picton wharf for the Cook Strait early, making the four-hour journey to the canyons where hoki congregate about 500 metres below the surface.

It takes just three bags to net the required hoki, with the final haul the biggest, at 40 tonnes. Captain Gavin Knight once caught closer to 80 tonnes in just one trawl, which he said highlighted the difficulty of fishing in the densely populated fishery.

The nets have sensors which ring when 20 tonnes of hoki have been caught, but with the fish sometimes taking three minutes to reach the back of the net, incredible skill is required to make sure only the required amount is nipped off the top of any mark.

Forest & Bird's Best Fish Guide for 2013 and 2014, which measures a fishery's impact on the environment, rated hoki as a "worst choice" for consumers.

It said hoki fishing's impact on its surrounding environment, including a bycatch of hundreds of fur seals, meant "the fishery has significant impacts on the seafloor, altering seabed communities".

New Zealand's hoki fisheries have Marine Stewardship Council certification, however, one of the first in the world to receive recertification for the stock in 2007. This was renewed in August, 2012.

And Sealord is installing cameras which will monitor every part of its boats, for both data collection and possible "live-feed" options.

Sealord fishing general manager Doug Paulin said the move, which was not typical in New Zealand, was about "trust and verification". Ultimately a consumer might be able to scan a code on a packet of fish, and see the fish coming up on to the boat.

"If I'm worried about my beef or my lambs or whatever, I go and look at it in the field and I see it. If I'm worried about my fish, where do I go and look?

"I think a lot of them will be like, s... is this how it's done, oh OK, there's that many fish in the sea, this is more about not catching the fish than it is about catching it. That's a bit different to where I thought these big nets just swallow everything."