Seventh generation Chatham Islander and former farmer Delwyn Tuanui, 39, and Australian spouse Gigi are the dedicated husband-and-wife team behind the Chatham Island Food Co. They purchased a dilapidated factory on the Chatham Islands in 2015, currently employ 25 people, and have 30 vessels fishing to them.

Tuanui laid the foundations for the business while living and studying in Melbourne. He recalls his ‘lightbulb moment’ came when he cooked up some Chatham Island blue cod he had shipped over for some of his friends, who ‘raved’ about it. 

Armed with the latest edition of the Good Food Guide, which Tuanui describes as ‘the Bible of who’s who in the Melbourne food scene’, he then began cold calling some of the best restaurants in the city. Soon after, his Chatham Island blue cod was being stocked by some of the most fêted venues around town, including Chinatown’s Flower Drum and the Taxi Dining Room (now known as Taxi Kitchen).

This success led to juggling his studies at Marcus Oldham College with early morning cod runs. Over the next few years, his operation grew to about 100 restaurants.

Tuanui says he got his foot in the door by simply sharing the story of the Island. He says he lets all the products, including his now award-wining pāua, speak for itself.

“It's purely just the story. There's no secret. It's just ‘hey, this is where I come from’.

“We're 800 kilometres off the coast of New Zealand, we're the most isolated community in New Zealand - one of the most isolated communities in the world. We are surrounded by the Southern Ocean. We are on the edge of the Chatham Rise [where] two currents meet; a warm current that comes out of the Indian Ocean, [called] the eastern current, that runs down the bottom of Bluff and then up the East Coast, hits the Chatham Rise, runs out and meets this cold water from Antarctica. 

“So, you get an environment that's rich in nutrients, carbon, and minerals, because of the two different temperatures of current and that creates a melting pot for marine life.

“The ocean floor is incredibly clean and... there's no silt or mud like you get around the coastline. Because we predominantly specialise in inshore species on reefs, the environment that they are in is incredibly clean and that reflects in the flavour.

“It's like a good wine. It's all about the terrain, the land, and the soil. For us, and our seafood species, it's no different. They're a product of their environment; incredibly clean… and that's all reflected in the taste and the flavour.

“So, I just told that story and that's just the reality of what the Island’s like, the water’s cold so the fish has a high fat content because of that and, again, that flavours the animal.”

However, it’s not just the environment that makes their pāua delicious; a rigorous quality control process contributes to an end-product that’s garnered a stellar reputation and bagged the top award.

“It's all about how we handle the fish through the supply chain. The key thing to understand is seafood is a very incredibly delicate protein. Much more delicate than red meat.

“It's just timeliness and attention to detail on every aspect of what we do through the supply chain to make sure that our customers get the best experience they can.

“We're handling the fish gently… we have people that really care about the details. Every fillet that we deliver to our customers around New Zealand in their homes is absolutely flawless. There's no bones, there's no blemishes, there's no scales, nothing's out of place.”

Before returning to the Chathams, Tuanui met business partner Geoff Creighton through a mutual friend at a dinner party.   

“Gigi and I realised early on that the fishing industry was an extremely competitive environment and that we would be up against some very large companies. We’d just finished university and didn’t have two coins to rub together.

“Geoff has been dealing with the Chathams for over 30 years, exporting crayfish, and has an immense respect and passion for the fishing industry on the Island and as a whole. He saw our vision and drive, and we teamed up. Geoff has been a huge factor in us being able to turbo charge our business. His kids also work in the business, so it is a real family affair from both sides.”      

When Tuanui first set up operations on the Island after relocating from Melbourne in 2014, he introduced a system where fishermen were paid on the temperature of the catch to ensure they were getting a really good product.

“Initially, there was quite a bit of pushback from fishermen; an ex-farmer turning up with all these big bright ideas. But I stuck to my guns and all of those guys are still with me today and the quality of fish has just changed beyond recognition. We wouldn't be here without the support that they've given us.”

However, Tuanui is less enthused about being ‘poster boy’ for success as he is about making sure the needs and struggles of the industry are seen and heard.

“Times are pretty hard at the moment for the fishing industry in general. Fuel prices have gone through the roof, compliance is pushing a lot of the old boys out, which is really sad.

“We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the men and woman [who] put their gum boots or Swanndri on and go to work every morning, risk their lives in the water, diving for pāua or jumping on a boat and go out into rough weather fishing for us.

“I think the industry needs more support than it's getting from the Government… we're a little bit forgotten about. We're often seen as the bad guy.

“I think government needs to pull its head out of its arse.

“Fishing is what keeps a lot of remote communities like ours alive.”

The challenges don’t end there, Tuanui warns. 

“Acquisition of staff to operate on the Chathams has always been challenging. The New Zealand labour shortage is posing a full new set of problems. We’re looking for people who are seeking a lifestyle change with positions available ranging from one month to forever.

“There is an opportunity to living in a community that thrive on hunting, fishing and community comradery.”