by Lilani Goonesena
It is freezing in the dark morning on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, just off the Bass Strait south of Melbourne, Victoria. We are wrapped in so many layers it’s difficult to turn our heads or grip the sides of the charter boat that takes us out on the bay. We are following Ben Jenkins, a 22-year old local fisherman for his 5-generation family fishing business, Jenkins and Son.
We are joined on the boat by Johnathon Davey, the Executive Director of Seafood Industry Victoria, who explains how commercial net fishing operates in the bay.
“There are 43 commercial licenses in Port Phillip, 42 of which can use four different types of net fishing, as well as long line fishing, pots and traps. There’s one license solely for purse seine fishing which uses a net with an anchor, for small fish such as pilchers, sardines, whitebait and anchovies.”
Jenkins and Sons operate under a netting license. Every night, usually starting at 1am, they fish these waters. They finish at 5am and are at the market by 6am. They’re making an exception today for us and we watch as their boat makes a wide circle, trailing 160m of netting behind it. Then comes the slow process of winching it in again.
“The fish congregate in the sea grass,” Johnathon tells us. “The net drags along the bottom and cleans the moss off the grass without tearing it out.”
The bay covers almost 2,000 square kilometres and its varied species include tuna, flathead, whiting, southern garfish, flounder, red mullet, tommy ruff, pike, shark (flake), and salmon. There are also brown, green and black abalone, though along with lobster and crab, they are fished by recreational rather than commercial fishermen. There is, however, a flourishing hand dive scallop industry.
“Traditionally, there were scallop dredges in the bay,” explains Johnathon. “But the industry was closed in 1999. Then, in 2013, the government brought in a hand dive scallop license. In 2015, it allowed a 145 tonne catch. That’s only going to grow and there are already big supply deals with restaurants.”
The decommission of the “archaic” scallop industry was a vast environmental improvement but also paved the way for new, introduced species. The bay is now suffering from marine pests like the Japanese Undaria which can attach to any surface. The ballast waters from the hulls of international ships have also brought in exotic sea stars and Sabella worms. In 2014, there were an estimated 60 million Northern Pacific Sea Stars in the bay.
Sea urchin are another introduced species but one that are proving a commercial success with profitable export markets in China and Japan.
Johnathon says that the bay is cleaner now than it has been cleaner in 15-20 years, with fish stocks at record highs.
From the look of today’s catch this morning, it’s true. The morning sun is well in the sky by the time the net is winched in to the side of the boat. Ben Jenkins, clad in a long-sleeved wetsuit, has jumped into waist-deep, icy cold water to sort the fish by hand.
“The fish are sorted in the water so they’re not stressed,” explains Johnathon. “There’s almost zero by-catch because they’re released alive. The efficiency of net fishing, live fishing, that has to be the best.”
Matt Binney, the 2015 Highly Commended Young Chef, and sous chef at Merricote in Melbourne, agrees.
“I thought there would be more by-catch but the amount of fish they released was exceptional,” he says. “ The process, netting and gathering by hand, it’s such a small operation but they have so much passion for it. They can provide a sustainable, high quality and manageable product for restaurants.”
The fishermen are moving fast, holding each fish against a board to check its legal size before tossing it into the boat, or the bay again.
“Everything’s maintained live until they decide it’s legal size and of market value,” Johnathon tells us. “Then it goes into bins full of ice. The fish go straight to sleep in there, it’s like a hibernation. They are live until the buyer buys them. For some of the bigger fish, like tuna, they do the iki-jime [spiking] straight into the brain; this keeps the meat as red and fresh as possible.”
Fisheries Victoria monitor commercial fishing regularly, with daily logbooks on where fishing takes place, the catch, species, conditions, by-catch, and other statistics. This has to match the sales records at the market. As well, fishery compliance officers visit the bay.
The information also assists research into fish species and sustainability. Snapper, calamari and whiting, for example, have all been labelled sustainable.
In the wake of the Victorian government’s plan to close Port Phillip’s commercial netting in favour of recreational fishing by 2022, Johnathon worries that it will be harder to keep track of species. He also says that consumer choice and availability will suffer.
“I can only assume there will be more of a reliance on imports or other states,” Johnathon tells us. At the moment Australia imports 70% of our seafood; we could end up at 85% imported.”