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By telling the story of food traceability and safeguarding species by fishing for the season, Invercargill-based Nate Smith has blown commercial fishing concepts out the water. In doing so, he’s won the favour of many top restaurant chefs throughout the country; Gravity Fishing allows chefs to tell customers the story of how their fish was line-hooked just yesterday.

Operating around Stewart Island, Nate and his partner Anna Urwin wanted to educate the masses on the benefits of fishing-to-order and seasonal produce. A year ago, the Gravity Experience became an instant hit with food tourists looking for a reason to cross the Foveaux Strait.

Connecting people to place

“It’s easy to lose touch these days,” says our seafaring guide Nate Smith. “Food brings us back, it reconnects us to the earth – it’s not only giving us dinner but nourishing the soul.”

His business aims to reconnect eaters with wild food resources by getting people to come down and, literally, jump on board. “They can relax while we’re out fishing if they want to, or they can roll their sleeves up and take pride in harvesting the protein they eat that night.

“I hope it’s educational – by connecting provenance to history, I want others to see that kaimoana is such a precious resource; we need to look after it.”

Gravity Fishing covers a huge fishing area, 200-plus nautical miles, starting at Slope Point, on the south-eastern coast of the South Island and finishing at Awarua Point, on the south-western coast. It includes Rakiura (Stewart Island), the home of Nate’s Ngāi Tahu ancestors. “You can’t beat it – the place keeps me humble,” he says.

Aboard the fishing boat, visitors use hook and line, catching only what’s needed for dinner. The fish is killed using an ancient, humane Japanese technique called Ikejime. Depending on what’s in season, they vary their destination accordingly.

“People can come down here six times a year and each trip would be different. We’ve just finished oyster season and next month [October] we’re onto scallops,” Nate advises.

Top-class Kiwi chefs then make the fish sing, cooking it on deck and serving it with other local produce and organic wine, in a sensory hook-to-plate triumph. The collaboration involved is something for which food tourists are willing to pay decent dollars. Such chefs involved in the Gravity Experience now include Giulio Sturla, Craig Martin, Cory Campbell and Ryan Henley.

“We don’t need a building in a city to have a restaurant!” he quips. “It’s an opportunity for these chefs to have their own classroom – we’re trying to preach the same message.”

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Nate Smith’s business, Gravity Fishing, aims to reconnect eaters with seasonal wild food resources. Photo: James Jubb

It’s all about research

Before starting his solo fishing operation, Nate went to great lengths to understand the requirements of the prospective hospitality audience. He sent samples of under-utilised, in-season fish species with information on how to cook it (recipes and all) to restaurants around the country.

“They couldn’t believe the lengths I had gone to, to be as sustainable as I could. The seasonality of produce gives us an edge. Plus I could prove the nutritional value via oil and fat content, utilising data from all over the world,” Nate recalls.

Chefs order using the operation’s cutting-edge online platform.

Packed and distributed from Gravity’s own warehouse, even the packaging is environmentally friendly, although “I still had to know that the fish would arrive in Auckland in the same state.”

“I’ve chosen a different path from the big fishery companies, by cutting out the middleman concept in supply – which is deeply ingrained and rather cloak-and-dagger,” he says openly. “There are only two people that matter – the end user and the harvester. The end user is the chef and we’re giving them the confidence to help tell this sustainability story.”

Adversity prompts growth

Becoming a kaitaki for Eat New Zealand in the middle of 2020 was a double-edged sword for Nate.

“It was a challenging year for me personally; I had a lot of things going on. It was great that I was getting somewhere – I felt elated and filled with joy. But until then, I had just been focused on fish supplies, and six months into the year Covid made Anna and I decide to go down the food tourism route.”

He was partly motivated by seeing what “people I cared about” in the hospitality and tourism sectors were going through. Some, including Nate’s chef friends, had to shut down their businesses due to the lack of visitors to the country.

“It got me thinking. We’re locked in our own beautiful country now, but we can still travel and do things. Launching Gravity Experience showed that we had everything in our back pocket to make for a special experience.”

Next thing you know, “[Cory Campbell], arguably one of the best chefs in the world, is producing a 22-course degustation menu for four people over five days! It showed the lengths we could go to,” Nate says.

A voice for good

Also in 2020, Nate received the Emerging Leader Award at the New Zealand Seafood Sustainability Awards. Taking his mantle and exposure seriously, Nate applied for Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) funding to roll out his Gravity Fishing model nationwide. Using his infrastructure model and business learnings, Nate hopes other regions will emulate what he’s done to reap the community benefits.

“It will restore sovereignty and security to people, bringing fish back to them for an affordable price – it will mean access for all parties, from harvester to consumer, so they don’t have to buy into mass production. It opens up the possibility of people reusing packaging, fishing for regionally specific produce, keeping health and wealth within the community,” he says. “It ticks all the boxes of food resilience.”

Here is someone who lives by the values Angela Clifford talked about. Like a true kaitaki, he aims to take people – and communities – on the journey.

Closing the loop

Jackson Mehlhopt is always after the source. The head chef at Gin Gin in Christchurch wants a better idea of where the restaurant’s food comes from – and so do his diners.

Having worked with fellow Eat NZ kaitaki Nate Smith for a few years at various restaurants, Jackson loved experiencing the Gravity story for himself.

“The mahi those guys put in is amazing. Meeting people like Nate, who harvest our food, is the quickest way for us to understand where it comes from. It’s a story I want to tell.”

The first time out with Nate, Jackson and his friends were looking for albacore tuna off the Fiordland coast, but they only caught one kahawai as water clarity was poor after rain. “The trip gave me a deeper appreciation of the wild elements harvesters battle with,” he says.

Gin Gin is known for focusing on limiting food waste; Jackson uses the whole product (fish stock, skin, tail and all). He primarily repurposes waste through fermentation; a natural step for the guy who grew vegetables and raised chickens as a youngster in Christchurch.

“There’s definitely a movement – I’ve noticed that people are asking questions about where things are sourced and how it’s processed in the kitchen. That’s what gets me excited.”

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