The Tora Collective, a two-person artisanal seafood company on the rough southern coast of the Wairarapa, won the Outstanding NZ Food Producer Award 2021 in the Water category.

Tora Collective is run by Troy Bramley and Claire Edwards and winning the award was a total surprise to them. The pair have not stood still in the 12 months since winning the award and while the number of restaurants they supply keeps increasing, a number of other ventures for Tora Collective are in their infancy.

Tora Collective are catching and selling to some of the country’s most high-end and discerning restaurants, including Saint Sebastian in Masterton. Bramley says owner Caleb Kloeg and head chef Johnny Monsour are creating masterpieces out of the favourites of the past generations.

As Edwards points out, a revival of traditional New Zealand foods is being mastered around the country.

“The kaimoana we supply is being used to create a fusion of what our ancestors used to eat and what is popular with our peoples today. We’ve never had much of an ‘Aotearoa cuisine’ before, but that is changing as we focus on using these and other local or endemic species, such as turning the classic creamed pāua on rewena (traditional Māori potato bread) into new high-end dishes,” says Edwards.

Although the crayfishing season ended for the Tora Collective at the end of February, generally they will send out a fishing plan at the end of each week to all their customers and ask them to put orders in by the end of the weekend, says Bramley.

“At the moment we are diving for pāua, and the same day we get it out of the ocean and pack it and get it on couriers to its customer the next day. That’s the quality we wanted to do with live produce.”

There are increasing recreational fishers plying the bountiful coast and the odd bach owner who picks Tora as their paradise of choice.

Bramley praises the local commercial pāua divers for voluntarily increasing the commercial pāua size from 125 to 128 so it leaves the recreational takers to take the 125mm length and lowers the number of commercial pāua harvested in the Wairarapa each year. He says Tora Collective has also decided to take no female crays this year to try to increase the abundance.”

Tora Collective is a new company, operating since August 2019 but Bramley’s family have been crayfishing on this coast for 30 years.

“For you, as a fisher, to have that connection to the people who are serving your fish or eating your fish is important. To know that is the fish you caught on that plate, instead of it going into a big tank is special and, for a long time, we haven’t been able to do what we do,” says Bramley.

Edwards also says there is a perception that they are totally anti-export, but they are not. They still export a portion of their cray catch. The purpose of Tora Collective is having an international supply and better product to Aotearoa while harvesting and doing business in a responsible and sustainable way.

“We’re not anti-export, we understand we need to export as a country, but we also need to also focus on supplying our people with the quality produce they deserve.”

Bramley says the Quota Management System (QMS) has been good, but it has limited opportunities for fishers’ ability to sell direct to the public and “there are only a handful of us out there who can, because we have independent quota or the ability to lease some, but there is not much out there”.

Edwards says the QMS does not need to be abolished but is does need to be tweaked. “We think that if you own quota, it should be leased directly to fishers, and not subleased through distribution companies, giving fishers the ability to sell the fish they catch.”

Bramley says it should be as easy as someone on the shore seeing a boat coming in with fish and asking to buy some fish off them, but currently the crew can’t sell that fish because they don’t own the quota or ACE. “It is also closing the door to people who do not have the ability to catch their own fish,” says Bramley.

Both are supportive of some more stringent controls and reporting of recreational fish. Edwards says we need to be aware of everything we are taking out of the ocean. Tora Collective take crayfish in pots, dive for pāua, and take some kina live as well.

“Oh, and octopus is the only bycatch we take from some of the other fisherman we know around here.” Bramley says their packaging is now fully plastic-free as they have home compostable bags for their local octopus or “occies” as well.

There has been quite a lot going on since last year as far as diversification, Bramley explains.

“We have trust and respect about what our brand is now, but we want to do more corporate events. We bring them out here, take them out on the boat, explain about the fishing and sustainability.

“These are people that often do not eat a lot of fish or who have little connection to the fishers themselves and we make it a fun corporate lunch and learning activity.”

The couple say that the whole ‘support local’ initiative that encouraged people to buy fresh produce on-line during the first Covid lockdown was a great boon for them.

Edwards says the past two years they have sold direct to consumer online for Christmas.

“About six weeks beforehand we go live, and offer deliveries for the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th depending on weather.

“And lockdown was amazing. We were driving it around hand delivering it and people thought it was really cool. We thought we would get about four orders because the restaurants were closed as well, but it was really epic.”

Bramley says the social media goes crazy with pics on Facebook and Instagram and the connection with customers is amazing.

There are some days they cannot fish.

“Coming into winter, pāua diving can be tricky. I have dived in some absolutely garbage conditions. Last year, we had about two swells that were about 12 metres.”

They started the tourism initiative last May and did another four events over summer.

“We’ve had people come out fish, dive, have lunches and parties,” says Edwards.

“We can cater to different-sized groups, and we do love a party.”

Another new initiative is a charity the two have started to education children about the sea.

“Look at all these drownings we have had this summer. I have seen stuff out here that recreational fishers are doing in the last couple of years that would just blow your mind. One flat day here at a point at the north end, this jet ski came out of Sandy Bay and dropped this girl off on the water. I drove up to her and she was trying to scramble up this rock and wanted to get on my boat.

“I asked her what she was doing here, and she told me it was her first time ever diving. But, yes, there needs to be more education about gathering seafood, but around tidal habits, what the moon does, why, if the sea is flat, why is there so much tidal movement still going on?”

Edwards says they hope to launch the trust in spring and teach a six-month programme where young people come out to Tora once a month and stay on to help younger children and be an ongoing part of the programme.

Bramley says our tamariki need to be educated not just to stay safe in our waters but so they can become better, and more sustainable fishers.

- Lesley Hamilton