16/02/2016 - 05:35

So fresh they're still biting

16/02/2016 - 05:35

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PHOTO ESSAY and MULTIMEDIA: A focus on sustainability and environmentally friendly fishing is proving a boon for WA seafood producers.

So fresh they're still biting
Damien Bell checks and re-baits 42 crab pots five times a week. Photo: Attila Csaszar

A focus on sustainability and environmentally friendly fishing is proving a boon for WA seafood producers.

It has just gone 4am, and while most Perth residents are sleeping, Jim Mendolia has his nets out just a few hundred metres off Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, catching sardines.

Rather than ending up in a can, however, most of the sardines the veteran fisherman hauls in will make their way on to a plate at one of the state’s top restaurants.

It’s a big turnaround from when Fremantle Sardines was first established.

See all the photos here.

Back in 1988, sardines were regarded as mulies, or baitfish, and weren’t considered to be good eating fish.

Today, the sardine has become something of a delicacy, no small thanks to the efforts of Mr Mendolia, whose family moved from Sicily to Fremantle to fish for lobster.

To dispel the notion that a sardine was just a baitfish, Mr Mendolia launched the Fremantle Sardine Festival, giving away thousands of sardine fillets to eager punters.

“Meanwhile, a lot of food writers started writing about me, and then all the chefs were contacting us,” Mr Mendolia told Business News.

“Sardines became vogue and they are very popular now. Once they tried them that was it, they loved them.

“Now a lot of restaurants throughout Australia have them on their menus.”

Demand for the sardines is so high Mr Mendolia said he couldn’t keep up, with the size of his Fremantle processing facility limiting him to a yearly output of less than 200 tonnes, well under his 380t annual quota.

Mr Mendolia is evaluating the prospects of establishing a new facility to ensure he can not only meet demand, but open up new markets as the sardine’s popularity grows.

Further south, Damien Bell is one of 11 fishermen to hold a commercial fishing licence for the Mandurah estuary.

Mr Bell, who is also president of the Mandurah Licensed Fishing Association, catches blue swimmer crab and mullet every day during the week, taking his boat out into the estuary at 5am.

The estuary is closed to commercial fishermen on weekends, allowing recreational fishers to get a slice of the action.

Most of the fishermen operating in the estuary are long-term players, some with family ties stretching back to when settlement first occurred in WA.

While blue swimmer crab is seen as a delicacy, Mr Bell said he faced a similar challenge to Mr Mendolia in convincing the public that the sea mullet was a lot more versatile than just being a baitfish.

“This fishery used to fish for the rock lobster fishery and catch a lot of bait,” Mr Bell said.

“What we’ve done, is we’ve taken the sea mullet and we’ve swapped it from a bait product and we’ve turned it into an edible product, and it’s becoming more popular by the year.”

Mr Bell said all of the crabs and mullet he caught were distributed in the local market, either to restaurants or seafood retailers across the metropolitan area, down south to Bunbury and up to Geraldton.

The local focus is a key plank of Mr Bell’s marketing strategy – everything he catches is fresh, local and sustainable.

“The products that I caught this morning, and I finished at 8am, are already in those retail outlets and are being sold,” Mr Bell said.

“This is the iconic thing about our fishery and it is absolute gold that the Perth consumer has us fishermen on their doorstep, fishing for them daily and delivering to them daily.

“When my crabs hit Kailis at Leederville the guys don’t like it sometimes because they’ve been bitten by the crabs when they’re putting them out on display – that’s how fresh our crabs can be.

“They’re still able to bite the poor old fishmonger as he’s putting them out on display.”

Fresh is also best for Southern Trading Australia, a deep-sea crab and abalone fishery that operates out of Fremantle.

The fishery exports around 40 per cent of its catch of crystal crab, king crab and champagne crab to China, where buyers will pay a premium for the WA-sourced crustaceans.

Southern Trading Australia managing director Glen Bosman said the company had developed strict processes to ensure its crabs were delivered live to international markets.

“The processes in place from a crab perspective in delivering consistently high-quality, live product gives the buyer and consumer a lot more confidence in the end result that’s going to come from it,” Mr Bosman said.

“If you have a look at crystal crab coming out of the US or wherever, you may have 30 per cent mortality because of the distances and the way it’s caught and the quality involved.

“It’s a similar product, but materially different in prices because of that quality issue.”

Another Fremantle operation producing a premium product for world markets is Fremantle Octopus, which started around 15 years ago.

As with the sea mullet and the sardine, prominent chefs are backing octopus caught off the WA coast, with Neil Perry, Peter Manifis and Rick Stein among those helping open new markets in the US, Europe and South-East Asia.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a very good eating species,” Fremantle Octopus general manager Arno Verboon said.

“That’s luck, but after that the luck stops; so how we catch it and handle it and process it, and all those sorts of things, we’re very specific.”

That focus on ensuring what is caught is handled well is another common theme across WA fisheries.

In 2012, the state government allocated $14.5 million to help WA fisheries attain Marine Stewardship Council certification, an initiative backed by the World Wildlife Fund to ensure sustainable fishing practices.

WA’s rock lobster fishery was the first in the world to be certified under MSC, while Austral Fisheries, Shark Bay and Exmouth Gulf prawn fisheries have also attained the tick.

Peel-Harvey Blue swimmer crab and mullet fishery, Fremantle Octopus, and Southern Trading are all in the process of obtaining the certification.

Western Australian Fishing Industry Council chief executive John Harrison said the certification gave the fisheries a distinct edge over their competitors.

“It gives the consumer confidence that the product that they are purchasing comes from a sustainable source,” Mr Harrison told Business News.

“We are a low-production country as far as quantity is concerned. But where we do have an advantage is the quality of what we produce is world class.”

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