A small retail fishing business that grew into a vertically integrated seafood company.
Harbour fish started as a small retail business and has grown into a vertically integrated seafood company, supplying quality fish to Dunedin locals, the broader domestic market and Australia. In 2023 the family business will celebrate their 20-year anniversary.
Nearly 20-years ago fisherman Damon Cooper purchased Harbour Fish, a small seafood store and processing facility in Port Chalmers, Dunedin and soon after his brother Aaron came onboard to run the operation. Damon’s boat, and other local ‘close to shore’ fishers supplied Harbour Fish from the Careys Bay port. Their sister Rachel Cooper assists with communications and administration.
Retail and local wholesale operations at the original Port Chalmers site went from strength to strength and another store was opened in Dunedin central.
In 2007 Harbour Fish took over a larger export-grade processing facility in neighbouring Sawyers Bay. The purchase was in the early stages of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and the local fishing industry wasn’t in great shape, with a number of local fishermen having tied up their boats to work elsewhere.
The facility had predominantly been a processor of wet fish for frozen product, but the Coopers have now moved to processing a combination of fresh and frozen product. The focus on quality fresh fish from inshore fishers (small owner-operators with crews of one to four) has bought the company a loyal following over the years.
In their local market, Harbour Fish has encouraged customers to expand their purchases away from mealtime stalwarts such as lemon sole and blue cod, to consume a wider variety of the fish species available from their fishery. Free samples, word of mouth, radio campaigns and recipe ideas have turned Monk fish, Moki, Gurnard, and Elephant fish, that were a struggle to sell in the early days, into mainstays of their offerings.
Harbour Fish currently produces a 50/50 split of fresh and frozen wet fish. The Sawyers Bay plant is focused is on processing for fresh sale: domestically around New Zealand, via retail stores in Dunedin (and more recently, a store in Queenstown) and exported directly to Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.
The business model has always been to become a vertically integrated one, with transparency throughout the supply chain, from catch to processing, then on for direct sale to the customer. The company has enduring relationships with their local fishers, with many supplying Harbour Fish exclusively. Many of the boats they work with are run by second, third or even fourth-generation fishers. They are also involved in community programmes, helping out with food banks and the like for people in need.
Aaron says the cool chain and speed of processing is key to keeping fish as fresh – and it has been the big focus for Harbour Fish. Presently, they’re part way through the roll out of new software that has dramatically improved their fish receiving and tracking processes.
A better-quality fresh product sees more value in the product, a better return for fishers, and a better quality of product for customers to enjoy. Through their retail stores, customers have everyday access to fresh, local fish in a way they didn’t prior to the company expanding into the Dunedin (and Queenstown) markets.
While the Coopers have moved on from the owner operator model, they’re still small enough to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, implement new processes and technology, and give things a go. As a domestic wholesaler, exporter, and retailer, things can be complicated, but it also means they can be flexible – quickly switching sales channels as necessary. For example, during the pandemic lockdowns and border closures, they were able to adjust their fresh and frozen outputs to work for accessible markets at that time.