What’s Covid-19 got to do with the price of fish? A lot

Coronavirus shutdowns have hit tourism and restaurants the world over – but what’s that got to do with the price of fish? Jonathan Milne investigates.

When the tourists left and chef Vou Williams was forced to close his cafe in Rarotonga’s world-famous Punanga Nui market, he went fishing.

With no income to feed his wife and two young sons, the 28-year-old went out into the lagoon each day. He’d catch parrotfish and ume (unicornfish).

“This has been how we’ve been feeding the family while the cafe is closed, and how I’m keeping myself busy,” he says. “That’s all we’ve been eating the past few weeks.”

Environmentalists and social commentators have observed silver linings to the dark Covid cloud: dramatic reductions in air pollution in China, Delhi and New York; sparkling water in the Venice canals, families discovering work-life balance in lockdown.

Cook Islanders have their own sparkling, shimmering lining: cheap fish.

Take tuna, as an example. In New Zealand this week, you’ll pay $45.90/kg for southern bluefin tuna steaks, purchased from Nelson-based fishing company Solander.

In Rarotonga, the yellowfin tuna comes into the Ocean Fresh store, chilled not frozen, just a day or two after it is caught by one of the company’s two small longline fishing boats.

Inside Ocean Fresh. Photo: Supplied

A couple of weeks ago Ocean Fresh was charging $27/kg for yellowfin tuna. This week, it was down to $15/kg. Broadbill was also down to $15/kg, and albacore, marlin, wahoo and spia were even cheaper at $13/kg.

This was half the price it was a fortnight earlier, and a third the price customers will pay in New Zealand – and this is fish that’s fresher and better.

Why? Because last month, the tourists all went home from Cook Islands, and the restaurants and cafes closed down. Moreover, there were those like Vou Williams who had previously purchased fish to serve to tourists, but with no income, they went fishing instead.

It is the law of supply and demand at its simplest.

This is mouth-watering news for fish-lovers, but means tough times for those who catch them.

Ocean Fresh boss Bill Doherty says he’s keeping his staff on, and his two fishing boats on the water, but he’s losing $5000 or $6000 a week.

There are static costs like $3000 a week for insurance, $1000 a week for wharf fees, and $100,000 a year for his fishing licences – and then there’s $7000 or $8000 a week in crew wages. He doesn’t want to go cap in hand to government for a wage subsidy, but they’re struggling.

Last year he air-freighted $300,000 or $400,000 worth of fish to Australia and New Zealand. That market’s shut down. He sold to restaurants and resorts. That market’s almost disappeared, too. Last year the company grossed about $3.2 million; that’s now dropped by 75 per cent. He’s just working to keep the company afloat as long as he can.

This glut of good, cheap fish is a hit that New Zealand fishing companies have been spared. Instead, they are seeing “a huge spike in online orders,” says Fiona MacMillan, from Auckland-based fishing company Sanford.

All of their 37 vessels are still fishing, almost as normal. “What has been very different is the additional safety measures and social distancing,” she says.

Down in Nelson, Solander managing director Paul Hufflett says overall demand is down because of restaurant closures, but he agrees online demand is up.

Unlike the Cook Islands, though, supply has declined. He says prices will probably increase due to the limited supply. “Enjoy fresh tuna where it’s available. Be kind to suppliers.”

With regret, Jillymae and Steven Kavana shut down the Mooring Fish Cafe by Avana jetty. Their main customers are tourists – and those numbers have dropped from 170,000 to zero. Photo: Supplied

Back in Rarotonga, 60-year-old Steven Kavana is one such supplier. He’ll be taking his boat Hot Chillie Mae out from Avana harbour this morning, like he has most mornings for the past 10 to 15 years.

“But it doesn’t even cover the cost of the fuel now. There are no tourists, no restaurants, no shops, the prices have come down so much. I sold whole tuna for $5/kg last week.”

In this coronavirus crisis, though, we’re all in it together.

So Kavana has been helping the local community harvest a big shoal of small ature fish that have arrived at Avana this month, like manna from heaven for a hungry people. Night and day, at low tide, families gather at the jetty to pull in the nets and carefully disentangle the fragile little fish.

Then they divide them up, in colourful, glittering little piles there on the boat ramp, and each family takes home a few.

Steven Kavana, 60, sips a coffee in his fishing hut as he looks out over Rarotonga’s Avana harbour. There’s no demand for his yellowfin tuna, now the tourists have all gone. Photo: Jonathan Milne


Fresh and barely-cooked in Cook Islands: Renee Clayton, a nutritionist at Cook Islands health ministry Te Marae Ora, says fish is one of the healthiest foods you can eat, a powerhouse of essential nutrients and a great source of Omega-3 fats that have been shown to be anti-inflammatory and good for your mind, body and skin.

It has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease, depression, dementia and can improve sleep.

Raw, grilled or baked fish is much better than battered and deep-fried, she says.

Cook Islands raw fish delicacy ika mata is a good healthy choice as long as it’s not served with bread, rice or fries, “and it would be one of my favourite ways to eat fish personally”.

It is best to stick to no more than one or two serves of deep sea fish per week due to the mercury content, so alternating it with smaller white-fleshed fish such as parrot fish or maroro (flying fish) is a good option.

Affordable alternatives in New Zealand: My Food Bag founder and cook Nadia Lim: Some people stick their noses up at it, but you can make some very delicious dishes with canned tuna, she says, like the creamy tuna pasta bake she made the other day on her lockdown cooking series Nadia’s Comfort Kitchen.

“There are so many other less well-known fish species that are cheaper simply because the demand is not there,” she says. “So maybe now is the perfect time for people to try different fish species and broaden their horizons!”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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