With uncertainty threatening farmers on his island home,Delwyn Tuanui was inspired to set up his Chatham Island food exporting company. By Rebecca Greaves.

Running around Melbourne in his early 20s with a chilly bin full of Chatham Island blue cod, knocking on the doors of the city’s top chefs, Delwyn Tuanui knew he had a special product.

Chatham Islanders have long known how good their blue cod is, and now Delwyn and his wife Gigi have built a business that supplies high-end restaurants and delivers direct to your door, all from a remote island with a population of about 600 people.

Their hard work and dedication were recognised on a bigger stage when Chatham Island Food Co took the top honours at the Outstanding New Zealand Food Producers Awards for 2022. They won the supreme award with their Pure Pāua Mince – the first Maori producers to win the top accolade. Delwyn’s family has a long history on the island, he is a seventh-generation Chatham Islander with a background in farming and seafood. As well as the farm, his father had pāua quota, and Delwyn was diving for pāua from the age of 12. Initially, however, it was with red meat rather than fish where he thought his future lay. A pivotal moment came in his early 20s, when returning home to help his dad on the farm he could see the uncertain future of farming. The downturn meant it was costing more than it was worth to get their livestock to market. They had to make the heart-breaking decision to cull sheep instead.

“Dad was pretty upset, like a lot of farmers he loves what he does and takes a lot of pride in his animals. I had this vision of myself 10 years down the track doing the same thing, and I was like ‘this is not for me’. Out of any dark moment there’s always that light you can choose to see and take, and it was a life-changing moment for me.

“I decided I’m going to go out to the world and I’m going to do something about this because I love my island, I love the people here and I can see this huge amount of potential here, but we have to change things, because this is not working.”

He knew a change was needed, and decided to head back to university to study at Marcus Oldham agricultural college in Australia, to upskill in marketing and business.

It was here he met his future wife, Gigi, and that he had a lightbulb moment about Chatham Island blue cod. Invited to a backyard barbecue one day, he took some kaimoana, blue cod, with him. When his friends ate the fish, he realised there was something unique in the product, and its story. The rest is history.

“Their response triggered a bit of a lightbulb moment and I started a pretty close relationship with the Chatham Island blue cod,” he says.

“I call myself a fishmonger, we essentially buy fish off local fishermen who catch it and we have infrastructure on the island that allows us to break that fish down. We package it and present it in a way that’s ready for our customers in New Zealand and around the world to eat.”

They specialise in Chatham Blue (blue cod) which is their champion fish, as well as kina and pāua.

“The number one thing is isolation. We are one of the most isolated communities in the world, 800km from the east coast of the South Island. Growing up, living and working in a really remote place creates a certain type of person and you develop certain skills and traits.”

Delwyn’s passion for his island, and the draw he felt to return, is evident when he speaks.

“You’re on a rock in the middle of the ocean and you’re submersed in your environment. I guess being so submersed in the land and the sea, you create a real connection to it.

“Deep down within me there was always that pull to come back. That epiphany with the sheep is what inspired me to start Chatham Island Food Co.”

  • From the Ground Up is a series of conversations with young Kiwis building their business in the primary industries.
    You can hear more of Delwyn’s inspiring story at: nzfarmlife.co.nz/podcasts-2

Or listen to the episode here: