In the latest instalment of her “know your species” series, Jordy Bardin explores how to locate, catch and cook the humble tarakihi...
Tarakihi (Nemadactylus macropterus) is highly regarded by both commercial and recreational fisheries in New Zealand, being the third most valuable inshore commercial finfish. This small demersal fish usually requires a bit of technique and knowledge to locate and catch, making them all the more rewarding! The tarakihi is known for its beautiful eating, making it a popular table fish among kiwis, even giving the classic snapper a run for its money! With 90% of commercially- caught tarakihi being sold into the local NZ market, it is an extremely important species not only to myself but to New Zealand. So with the recent stock assessments showing an unfavourable decline in numbers, awareness of the issues and drastic action are vital to ensure the sustainability of our future stocks.
The tarakihi is typically a schooling fish and two different species are found in NZ: the common tarakihi and the king tarakihi. King tarakihi are less commonly caught and grow to a larger size, with little data actually recorded about them. The common tarakihi have a silver colouring with a distinctive vertical dark band between the head and dorsal fin. As well as this distinguishable band, tarakihi also have a very long thin ray in the pectoral fin. On king tarakihi the dark dorsal band is less obvious and there is a dark band on the pectoral fin instead. Tarakihi have a small mouth and fairly prominent soft lips, helping them to vacuum the seafloor for invertebrates. They are long-lived, reaching 40+ years, and are quite small, with a two-kilo fish being regarded as an impressive tarakihi! They don’t reach sexual maturity until approximately six years of age, which increases their susceptibility to overfishing. This is unfortunately what has happened to New Zealand’s tarakihi stocks…
A tarakihi caught on a small J hook and skipjack, displaying its distinctive black band markings.
Tarakihi stocks are broken up into various quota management areas around New Zealand, with the most productive four areas being on the east coast of NZ. Tarakihi are targeted here by commercial fishing vessels through the method of trawling. Before the tarakihi stock assessment of 2017-2018 (produced by MPI) was conducted, these four areas were considered as separate stocks but research has shown that they are in fact connected and must be treated as one whole east coast tarakihi stock. The 2017-2018 stock assessment showed that the east coast tarakihi stock was below 20% of the unfished biomass, and a recent updated assessment showed this number going as low as 15.9% biomass during that time (100% biomass refers to the whole fish population before industrial fishing began, so we have basically reduced the tarakihi population to less than 20% of its unfished population). This number ,being below 20% indicates that the stock is overfished and drastic action needs to occur to prevent further decline and a collapsed stock. A management strategy evaluation has produced a target to rebuild to 40% biomass and a crucial step was taken to work towards this. On the 1st of October 2018, with the help of LegaSea and the 9000 Kiwis who signed the Time Out for Tarakihi petition, the Minister cut commercial catch limits by 20%. This has reportedly increased stock numbers already but further action will be required. Fisheries NZ gave the general public three management options to review and give feedback on in July this year and an extensive management strategy for the eastern tarakihi stock has been made for further future management.
There are currently no proposals to change the recreational allowances due to the small amount of tarakihi being harvested recreationally. Reductions to the recreational limits would have little impact on improving the stocks according to Fisheries NZ; however, we could still do our part by taking only enough for a feed.
As mentioned, tarakihi are long lived and do not generally reach sexual maturity until they are six years old and at a size of 33cm. Currently the size limit is 25cm and they take 3-4 years to reach this length, which indicates that a portion of tarakihi caught and taken in NZ may not have had the chance to reproduce. Considering this, do you think that the recreational and/or commercial size limit should be raised? Find more info through the fisheries.govt.nz website.
Tarakihi are found throughout New Zealand’s coastal waters and in temperate Australian waters, but are known as the jackass morwong by the Aussies. Tarakihi can be caught all year round and are mainly targeted along the east coast of New Zealand by both commercial and recreational fishers. In the area off Waihi Beach, where I mainly target tarakihi, they move to the 20-30m inshore reefs towards the end of winter. I have also shot them while spearfishing in Fiordland in less than 10m of water! They are commonly found between depths of 30m – 250m (but are found shallower in some areas) and are often associated with reef structure or foul ground which provide them with a food source.
The writer with a king tarakihi, caught at the Ranfurly Banks while fishing for hapuku and bass.
Being bottom dwellers with small mouths, tarakihi feed on invertebrates that are associated with reef, sand or mud. This includes a varied diet of small crustaceans such as crabs and also worms and shellfish. To target these fish, you want to start with a ledger rig of some design, using reasonably light leader such as 30lb. I like to use three hooks, with two above the ball sinker and one below. You can also have the sinker at the bottom, matching the sinker weight with the depth and the current in which you are fishing. I prefer the sinker to be sitting just off the bottom when setting my gear for tarakihi. Small hooks are a must; a 2/0 circle or J hook with small chunks of bait is a good size for their little mouths. For tarakihi bait, you can’t beat pipi in my opinion! Other than that, I use small chunks of skipjack or squid; however, tarakihi don’t seem to be too fussy. Getting a berley trail going (preferably weighting the berley down towards the bottom or attaching it to the anchor line) is a great asset as well. Tarakihi nibble at the bait so it’s vital that everything is small enough in order for the hook to grab. Using braided line on lighter gear allows the angler to feel those gentle tugs on the line. Hold the rod and be vigilant – you can usually distinguish the aggressive little bites of the juvenile snapper from the few soft tugs of the tarakihi. I find that if using a J hook, a good strike followed by a few consistent winds that hold the tension will set the hook. However, if using a circle hook, a few fast winds should allow the hook to roll into the corner of the mouth. Tarakihi can also be targeted while deep-dropping for hapuku. Simply attach a smaller hook onto the bottom of your rig to entice that lurking, hungry tarakihi. If you catch one it can then be used as a hapuku bait, as these enjoy preying on the tasty tarakihi, unless you’d prefer to eat it instead!
Tarakihi is a versatile fish when it comes to eating! It has a white, reasonably firm fillet with plenty of moisture which can be used for practically anything – raw, smoked, curries or chowder! I enjoy it simply crumbed, pan-fried or battered because it has such a beautiful texture and flavour on its own. Although the tarakihi population has declined and fishing for them may be harder than it was in the past, this doesn’t mean you have to stop fishing for them altogether. Instead, take only what you need, safely release any juveniles or unwanted catch and utilise each fish that you keep. Also keep up to date with the tarakihi situation and have your say through the LegaSea and Fisheries NZ websites. And let’s show the mighty tarakihi the respect that it deserves!
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