Championing local high-end seafood

16 January, 2020 by
John Susman

I grew up in a family who spent half their lives in or on the water. Leading our rabble was my dad Dave Susman — part- Indiana Jones, part-Keith Floyd, 100 per cent mad fisherman.

Every September school holidays, we’d pack the bags and head up the Murray River to Lock Nine and camp at my Uncle Sam’s cabin on Lake Cullulleraine to try and catch the infamous Murray cod.

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In December, we’d go hand lining off Carrickalinga Beach for King George whiting. In January, on the inter-tidal sand banks off the Ardrossan, we raked for blue swimmer crabs, at Easter we went greenback flounder spearing in Coffin Bay and trapped crayfish on Kangaroo Island in June.

There is little doubt my formative years on the water played a role in the wet, slimy, smelly and scaly seafood career I’ve been hooked on my whole life. I’m surprised I don’t have a dorsal fin. The nature versus nurture debate in many senses is a bet each way, as both play a role in anyone’s — indeed, anything’s — development.

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When it comes to food and wine, the environment — soil, water and climate — plays an important role in creating the unique characteristics of a product.

In winemaking, the terroir is vital in a crop’s phenotype, and coupled with farming practices, help define a sense of place for a varietal.

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In seafood, merroir (environment and climate) plays the same role. The salinity of water, the nutrients found within it, freshwater flows, oceanic upwellings, temperature and habitat. It is the merroir that provides the perfect conditions for certain species, when given another set of circumstances, may not prosper or indeed survive.

A Spencer Gulf Hiramasa kingfish, at home and indigenous to the Spencer Gulf and Great Southern Ocean, would be a fish out of water in much warmer waters. When it comes from a more tropical environment, it is often subject to a naturally occurring blood virus which causes soft flesh when cooked.

Conversely, barramundi, fished and farmed in Northern Australia, falls asleep in water that drops below 20 degrees Celsius while the Glacier 51 toothfish — a species that swims in waters colder than a polar bears’ toenails — simply wouldn’t survive in waters near the equator.

The highly seasonal and extraordinary scarlet prawn harvested in Cape Moreton is caught at depths of up to 2000 metres from deep oceanic trenches of the South Coral Sea; a unique environment that the prawn relies on for its stunning colour and culinary texture, characteristics it would not possess if living in other waters.

Seasonality and sustainability bear huge importance for seafood, but perhaps fish in native waters is more important. The notion of local and seasonal is crucial. They help to deliver a sense of place, of ‘fresh from the ground’, of ‘ripe moments before adding an exclamation and you raise it to your lips.

It’s been the catch cry of a new generation of chefs — the only problem is most chefs in Australia have restaurants in capital cities nowhere near the sites where produce is grown. Being ‘local’ isn’t as easy as one presumes and doesn’t necessarily mean best in class.

Seafood, perhaps more than any other produce, relies on its native environment to live healthy, sustainable lives. Best-in-class seafood is a reflection of provenance and the notion of merroir, but seafood extracted from its indigenous homeland has special flavour and texture characteristics.

Native waters have unique climates and seasonal patterns, which is why fisheries risk fortune, life and limb exploring and harvesting some of the most remote parts of our planet. Aquaculture farmlands are dangerous and vast. Sailing the high seas and 15-metre swells to score Glacier 51 toothfish is a far more dangerous proposition than feeding chickens.

The fish lives 4109km south of the Australian mainland beneath arguably the most inhospitable islands in the world — Heard Island and McDonald Islands. At its southern tip is Glacier 51 where the toothfish patrols underwater volcanic crevices two kilometres below, dieting on fish, crustaceans and Antarctic bay shrimp, resulting in the toothfish’s deliciously rich, tasty flesh.

Unlike other deep-water fish, it doesn’t have a swim bladder to maintain its buoyancy; it uses oil, which adds to the unique moisture and flavour of the fish. Austral Fisheries, the world’s only carbon-neutral fishery, risks gale-force winds, horizontal snow, 15-metre swells and as little as four hours daylight per day to bring one of the most luxurious eating experiences to diners. It’s a fish that could never be considered ‘local’, but whose native waters are key to its character.

If you want to talk native, sustainable and of species, look to South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, home to Spencer Gulf, Boston Bay and Coffin Bay. The Eyre Peninsula is about half way between Sydney and Perth and is located at the bottom of a barren expanse of wheat farming and wilderness.

The Spencer Gulf is home to Australia’s largest commercial tuna fishing fleet and a hub of both wild harvest and aquaculture fisheries. It is one of the most special fishing grounds on the planet. The attraction for fishermen and aquaculture companies is the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Great Southern Ocean. Fed by the upwellings from Antarctica and carried up to the Australian mainland by the infamous “roaring forties”, the waters have long held a worldwide reputation for the quality seafood indigenous to the native waters.

When you list the seafood of the region, it’s staggering to comprehend. Dinko southern blue fin tuna, Spencer Gulf Hiramasa kingfish, Kinkawooka mussels, Coffin Bay oysters, Spencer Gulf and prawns. Not to mention the amazing abalone, sardines, crayfish and King George whiting, too.

It is here in the cold, clean and pristine waters of the Great Southern Ocean that Clean Seas produce the world-renowned Spencer Gulf Hiramasa kingfish. Their brood stock are indigenous, and the kingfish are grown in pens in the waters of their ancestors — South Australia’s Spencer Gulf. Dan Fisk, Clean Seas’ general manager for aquaculture explains that farming this fish in its native waters is like nurturing your own child; you have to put a lot of time and care in to make sure they flourish.

“What makes the water here so special is its proximity to the ocean,” says Fisk. “There’s a constant movement of oceanic water coming into the Spencer Gulf — and it’s huge, around 300km across. Coupled with the fact we don’t have a lot of rainfall here in South Australia — which means all the organic materials, herbicides and pesticides that can come from land farming are not here — you really are in a special place.”

The Spencer Gulf and its various bays, such as Boston and Arno, provide an unmatched merroir for the Spencer Gulf Hiramasa kingfish, resulting in a flavour and texture that just wouldn’t happen in another region.

So when you’re menu-ing seafood, don’t just think local, seasonal and sustainable. If you want to hero best in class, explore some of the unique regions of Australia’s waterways where the native waters, and the world’s best fishermen, are sticking true to the origin of the species that simply must be celebrated. You know it makes sense.

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