Getting reel about sustainability

Sustainability and their livelihoods were the hot topics at harbour raft-up with Sydney chefs and fishermen, writes Will Temple. 

AFTER an early morning’s fishing of his own, there’s nothing executive chef Colin Barker likes better than to watch the catch come to market from his prime position at The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay.  

As the vessels cut through the water, Barker knows exactly who to call to get his orders in straight, so his customers can sample more than just a great view from their tables at the Sydney icon. 

“We know 98 per cent of the boats and what they target,” the chef says. “And then we get straight on the phone. We are just blessed by location.”  

Today Barker is taking time out to join the Executive Chefs Club as the rest of us also get to meet the fishos bringing in their seafood haul and learn what they face to do it.

It may not be the high seas, but we are on a pair of working boats moored in Johnstons Bay, Pyrmont, watching as a distant streak of lightning adds a certain spark to the sizzling summer afternoon. 

The storm thankfully stays away, and we cool off instead with a selection of beers from beer aficionado David Lipman, that includes a Blue Moon wheat beer from Colorado with its distinctive flavour of Valencia orange peel. 

Standing on the deck of the 48-foot snapper trapper Rachael E is enough to whet the appetite for what’s to come from executive sous chef Jason Alcock and his team at The Star. 

Before too long Alcock unveils crunchy whole school prawns done in Indonesian sambal, before moving to snapper sashimi and slow-cooked mullet with lemon oil and fennel. 

As we tuck in, skipper Paul Sullivan says as far as sustainability goes, the fishing is as good as it’s been in his 25 years in the job. 

Sullivan traps snapper, silver bream, trevally, morwong and leather jacket from Broken Bay to Port Hacking. He uses wood and wire cages and bait bags filled mostly with pilchards, with the fish coming up live. 

“We don’t have any by-catch,” he says. 

“Anything that is undersized is returned alive.” 

A potential problem for ensuring beautiful red snapper is because they mimic their surroundings they can turn pale in regular white slurry tanks. One look at Sullivan’s, though, reveals a special trick – he paints his tanks red and his snapper stay the way we want them. Moored alongside him today is Peter Offner, whose Spinaway II can bring in more than a thousand eastern rock lobsters on a good day, fishing the waters from Newcastle to Sydney. 

Offner credits industry intervention in the mid-1990s, with its new standards for maximum legal length and quotas, as helping turn the fishery around.

“We are a recovered fishery and we are here for the long term,” he says. 

“Our stocks were grim 15 years ago but all the research says they are back to 1940s levels. 

“Our eastern rock lobster is every bit as enjoyable to eat as a southern but comes with a thousand less road miles. The local product comes fresher.”

The poached lobster today does indeed taste fantastic and comes up a treat with a bit of lemon. 

Colin Barker is on hand to ably shuck a crate of four-year-old Sydney rock oysters and agrees the local fishery is perfectly sustainable providing everything is caught in season and within quota. 

He says he prefers wild produce and makes sure to try lesser-known species like ocean jacket - “probably our most under-rated fish”. 

“They are phenomenal eating and the price point is amazing,” he says. But if there’s one thing the fishos here today are concerned about it’s the sustainability of their livelihoods. 

The locals have been actively protesting against proposed changes to NSW law that would fix the allocation of days they are allowed to work, regardless of how many they are currently doing to make their businesses run. 

If the changes go ahead, allocation would be spread equally among active and inactive licence holders, with working fishermen having to “buy back” their days. 

For Peter Sullivan this would mean cutting back to 30 days a year on the water instead of the 150 he needs to stay viable, or face investing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He says increased competition from New Zealand has already kept snapper prices for the fisherman at the same level they were at 25 years ago, regardless of inflation. 

Any changes to allocation would be an added blow, he adds. 

Australian Marine Alliance chief executive Dean Logan says the industry is already losing cottage-based family fishermen every day. 

For Logan, sustainability arguments are more relevant offshore where the regulations may not be so tightly enforced.

“It’s these guys who provide value back into the community,” he says. 

“They deserve a fair go.” Out on our two boats today, it’s hard not to hear them all on this. 

Because if there’s something to agree on, this locally caught fresh produce is pretty hard to beat.