Demand for scampi growing

Scampi has been good for the Connor family in the last two years. From left, Stephen Connor, his sister-in-law, Liz, and ...

Scampi has been good for the Connor family in the last two years. From left, Stephen Connor, his sister-in-law, Liz, and brother Geoffrey on their boat Sea Hawke II.

Scampi is something almost unknown to most New Zealanders, so it's no wonder 99.9 per cent of the catch of a Blenheim company is exported.

For the past two years, most of that has gone to Asia, a small amount to Australia and recently, a trial shipment was sent to France.

In Asia, the small crayfish-like creature is a highly prized, expensive product, Christine Connor said. Christine is co-owner with her husband, Stephen, brother-in-law Geoffrey and his wife Elizabeth, of Waikawa Fishing Company.

Last month, the company's scampi was served at the official lunch banquet at SkyCity Auckland for Chinese President Xi Jinping after the chef specifically asked for it.

"He said it was the best scampi available and it comes from a small family business with a story behind it," Christine said.

"It's word-of-mouth which puts our product out there."

The company also supplies Huka Lodge, the luxury accommodation provider near Taupo.

However, 99.9 per cent of their catch is sold overseas because, the family say, New Zealanders don't know much about it or what to do with it.

"A few New Zealanders have eaten it in other countries but in general Kiwis don't even know what it is," Stephen said.

"We eat it ourselves," Christine said.

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"We butterfly it like crayfish, put olive oil over it and flash it under the grill for two minutes, or with garlic butter.

"In England, people eat scampi and chips: they tail the scampi and batter it, or breadcrumb it. In Europe, they stir fry them with garlic."

Stephen said it was better than crayfish.

It's also an expensive product, driven mainly by the demand from Asia.

"'I've seen it in a Sydney fish market priced at $8.50 each," Geoffrey said.

Stephen said Cawthron Institute researchers reported it sold for $300/kg in Asia.

Asians eat it raw and Geoffrey said they liked it because it came from New Zealand where the water was clean and there were strict rules about health and safety.

The Connor family has been in business as Waikawa Fishing Company since 1981, starting with one boat out of Picton.

Before that, Geoffrey was a fitter and turner at the Picton freezing works for seven years and Stephen was a deck-hand and skippered boats. Both Elizabeth and Christine were in banking.

Geoffrey's son, Lance, a qualified skipper, is working with Stephen's daughter, Amber Louise, towards taking over the management of the company. Two nephews in the business make it a real family concern.

"We had always been around the Sounds as kids and we were keen to try commercial fishing," Geoffrey said.

"It was a lifestyle thing," Stephen said. "There was no plan, no regulations, no quotas - it was just 'let's go fishing'."

But in 1990, the industry changed when the quota system was brought in and the company was forced to become more professional.

"We went from being simple fishermen to businessmen," Geoffrey said.

The company started exporting scampi about two years ago. It doesn't hold an export licence but sells through brokers.

Stephen said they noticed unused scampi quota in 2009 and decided to give it a go.

The Sea Hawke II, one of three boats owned by the company, is used exclusively for scampi. Being a limited processing vessel, all the scampi is frozen and packed on board.

It is at sea for about three weeks and goes straight back when unloaded, with a change of crew.

"At the moment we're trawling for scampi, but we're investigating the use of pots, to cut costs and be a little more selective about what we catch. We trialled some on our last trip," Geoffrey said.

These trials and other research are being carried out with the help of a grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for $7.8 million over six years.

Parties in the research include the Cawthron Institute and Zebra-Tech, both of Nelson, and Auckland University.

One of the research subjects is the possibility of scampi aquaculture. Geoffrey said it could be done in Marlborough but the conditions and other important criteria were as yet unknown.

"But we'd still go on potting - there's not enough scampi in New Zealand to meet export demands."

 - The Marlborough Express

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