Big fish, little fish: two companies making a splash in Tasmanias seafood industry

12 November, 2015 by
Danielle Bowling

Tasmania’s reputation for producing high quality food is strengthening year on year, with a growing number of both chefs and consumers seeking out ingredients grown or produced on Australia’s island state.

This is most certainly the case for Tasmania’s seafood industry – the most valuable seafood industry in Australia – which in 2011-12 had a combined beach/farm gate value of $690.2 million. The region’s clean, cold waters are home to some of the country’s most delicious sea creatures, and on a recent trip with Brand Tasmania, Danielle Bowling spoke to two very different producers – both pushing the boundaries and making a name for the state – at home and abroad.

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Little fish
It may have launched off the back of a global tragedy, but Candy Ab, which manufactures dried abalone, is an international success story for founders Mike Vecchione and James Polanowski.

“We started three months after the tsunami (Japan, 2011). If there was no tsunami we wouldn’t have even started. We only started because there was a window for someone else to produce a good product,” Vecchione said.

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“The Japanese tsunami destroyed their fishery on the east coast. If they were still there we would never match them, because it’s a 600 year old industry … There’s still some fish there but there’s a fear of radiation in the water. The Chinese are absolutely scared of radiation, so they won’t touch fish from Japan … So now, who’s best? We’re fighting for that top position.”

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The abalone export market is worth about $100 million, and while the majority is sold fresh, Candy Ab has created a reputation of being one of the world’s best producers of dried abalone.

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Retailing for around $1,250 a kilogram, the abalone is wild caught before undergoing a 10 week drying process, and while customers are more than welcome to visit the Candy Ab facility and see the fish drying, the owners are tight-lipped about the finer details.

“We believe we’re the only place where you can actually go and have a look at the fish being processed, [but] it’s a highly secretive industry. There are only half a dozen people in the whole world who know how to make it properly. If Chinese people picked up on what we do, we’d be in all sorts of trouble,” Vecchione said.

Candy Ab handles two varieties of abalone: the Green Lip and the Black Lip, and key to the manufacturing process is the development of the ‘candy heart’, which sits in the centre of the abalone. The heart is what makes the abalone such a high end product, garnering a price tag of up to $1,400 a kilo.

“The candy heart is kind of a really soft eye fillet, and it’s really sweet and sticky. If you cut it, it sticks to the knife. That’s what everybody tries to get, but it’s very, very hard to do,” Vecchione said.

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However, producing heart and convincing the Chinese to part with their hard earned cash is not the problem: supply is. The Tasmanian government strictly monitors the fishing and harvesting of all seafood, including abalone, and sets quotas each year on how much fisherman are able to catch.

“At Candy Ab we have access to half of the Tasmanian quota of Green Lip. We take everything we can and we still can’t keep up with the market,” he explained.

As a work-around, the company is trying to convince the Chinese market – which tends to prefer Green Lip – to embrace Black Lip, which Vecchione  says isn’t as enjoyable to eat as the Green Lip, but is a “good gift fish.”

Dried abalone is a collectable item in China, and the gift giving market represents 20 to 30 percent of Candy Ab’s business.

Another value-added product Candy Ab has developed is its pre-cooked abalone. Traditionally, cooking the fish is quite an investment, not just in price, but also in time. The dried abalone takes around to five days to reconstitute, so in order to speed up the process, Candy Ab partnered with chef Lee Chiang Howe of Teochow Restaurant Huat Kee in Singapore to produce a ready-made sous vide product.

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“We send fish to Singapore and he cooks them, prepares the sauce, sends them to Taiwan for retorting and then sends them back to us and we sell them, pre-cooked … The sauce is already done, you dip it in hot water – 90 degrees for 20 minutes – and then you just rip (the bag) and put it on a plate with bits of broccoli.

“This is going really well, and this is for those people who don’t want to cook; that want to eat this straight away,” Vecchione said. “It’s the only abalone in the world where you can do this, otherwise you have to go to a restaurant.”

The pre-cooked abalone is available at the Barilla Bay Restaurant next to the Candy Ab facility, selling for $149 a serve, and according to Vecchione, Chinese customers don’t bat an eyelid, often ordering six or eight serves at a time.

Less enthusiastic about the Candy Ab product, Australian diners are yet to develop a taste for abalone.

“In regards to Westerners, out of 100 people, 20 would like it, 20 would say they’re not sure and the other 60 would just absolutely hate it, spit it out,” he said.

The other key obstacle, is the chef. They don’t order dried abalone; partly because diners wont order it, partly because of the cost and partly because they don’t know how to handle the fish. Despite the ease of preparation, chefs are also reluctant to order the sous vide product, Vecchione said.

“The chef can’t put his name on it, and he feels like he’s cheating. So the chefs are worried about that, but the managers of the restaurant would think ‘We’re paying $90 for fish and can sell it for $200, and we don’t have to do anything’, but the chefs are a little bit worried that they’re using someone else’s cheffing on their plate.”

Big fish
Marine farming accounts for roughly 80 percent of the value of Tasmanian seafood, and the largest contributor to this is the salmonid farming industry -which includes salmon and trout – and in 2011-12 had a value of $506.5 million.

When the salmon farming industry was first getting on its feet about 30 years ago, there were close to 30 farms. Now there are just three key players: Tassal, Petuna and Huon Aquaculture.

“The business was grown quite substantially over the past 30 years. We now employ over 600 people across just about every state in the country,” said James Bender, Huon’s business development executive. “When the industry first started, no one in Australia ate salmon, really. You couldn’t get it here; it wasn’t even a menu choice, whereas now it’s basically a staple. You can’t go into a restaurant in the country without salmon being on the menu.”

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Unlike Candy Ab, Huon’s main focus is the domestic market, specifically the wholesale market with only about 20 percent of the company’s total volume being exported.

The company has continued to innovate throughout its 30 year history, and has a whole host of industry awards recongising its commitment to product quality, innovation, sustainability and also OH&S, most recently in regards to the its new pen design.

“We actually won OH&S awards for the pen design because traditionally when you walked around the pen you had to walk around on round, plastic, wet tubes, but now with the new pen design it has a walkway all the way around the pen, so it’s a lot easier for the guys to work,” Bender said.

The new pens are also far more effective in keeping the fish safe from predators, namely seals. “So we’ve just finished rolling out a $60 million investment in new pens and nets. Our pen design is what we call a fortress pen, so it has an inner net which keeps the fish in with a smaller mesh, and then an outer net which runs from eight feet above the water all the way to 36 metres down, and that’s made out of a larger mesh size, and that keeps seals out.”

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The pens are made out of a material called Dyneema which Bender says is basically the same as Kevlar, which bullet proof vests are made from. “So it’s very strong; it’s very lightweight, but it’s easy to handle for the guys that need to work the nets on the farm.”

Another development which Huon is particularly proud of is its feed system – the result of a two and a half year project with a European feed software manufacturer.

The company’s new feed barges represent a centralised feed system in the middle of a lease area, feeding up to 12 pens at once, and they’re expected to halve the amount of feed boat traffic thanks to the fact that they can hold at least one week’s worth of food.

“The new feed barge system works using a pellet recognition software,” Bender said. “There’s a camera situated six metres under the water looking back towards the surface, so as the fish are feeding, the pellet recognition software senses and detects those pellets falling towards it, and as it starts to detect an increased level of pellets reaching a certain depth in the water column, it starts tapering down the feed.”

IMG_1352.JPGA feed monitoring station on the new feed barge.

This system ensures that all the fish, regardless of their size, receive enough food without wasting feed and potentially impacting the surrounding environment.

Huon’s method of harvesting the fish, which has also been adopted by a number of other companies in the industry, is extremely humane and allows the company to offer a premium product, with fish filleted before rigor sets in.

The Baader harvesting system uses the fish’s natural instinct to swim into a current to drive them up over a ledge – as if they were going upstream – where the stunner is located. After being stunned they’re instantly rendered brain-dead before being bled out and transported to a processing site in trucks that have a recirculating chilling system that keeps them at a core temperature of two degrees.

“So it’s a totally no-stress process. With the processing or killing of any livestock it’s all about trying to keep those stress levels down otherwise the animal releases toxins through the blood,” Bender said. “Because of the extremely gentle harvesting process, the fish take a lot longer to go through rigor … We have 12 to up to 20 hours before the fish goes through rigor, so that allows us to do pre-rigor filleting. What that actually means is you get a lot better quality end product. When the fish goes through rigor, it’s attached to all the skeletal structure so as it bends, all those muscle fibres tear. If you can take the fillet off the skeleton before it goes through rigor, the fillet can contract and them come back to its normal size.”

huon.jpgDanielle Bowling with James Bender.

Both Candy Ab and Huon – like most food manufacturers in the state – are subject to very strict regulations by the state government, but rather than seeing them as a burden or complaining about prohibitive red tape, they’re encouraged and in fact motivated by the state’s involvement, as both the companies and the government are working towards a shared goal: the long-term, sustainable growth of Tasmania’s food industry.

Bender sums it up nicely: “We work in an environment where we can’t afford to have any real, long lasting effects because that’s where we’re growing our product … At the end of the day, everything we do is about putting the fish first.”

Hospitality visited Huon Aquaculture and Candy Ab as a guest of Brand Tasmania.