Australia’s changing tastes in seafood

Image: Scott Thomas

John Newbery discusses Australia’s changing tastes in seafood and why undesirable species from yesteryear like bonito, kingfish and luderick are now considered top table fare.

WHEN I started fishing seriously about 55 years ago, lots of species now considered to be excellent table fare were not highly regarded by most of my NSW angling colleagues. While mulloway, snapper, morwong, whiting, rock blackfish and blue groper were generally retained for the table, species such as yellowtail kingfish and silver trevally were usually given away. Bonito and other tunas were generally considered to be bait only. Australian salmon were considered inedible. Tailor and luderick had their followers who basically knew how to look after them prior to cooking.

Things have certainly changed, for a range of reasons. Knowledge about fish handling and food preparation has increased dramatically. Salt water ice slurries have replaced hessian bags as preferred fish storage options, and humane killing and effective cleaning have turned kingfish and bonito into white tablecloth restaurant offerings, tuna and trevally into sashimi favourites and salmon into a genuine smokehouse option. At the same time, the adoption of the catch & release ethic, coupled with bag limits, means that far more “desirable” fish like mulloway and blue groper are released.

It’s interesting to look at the history of an individual species like luderick. Happily, the FRDC recently released its report 38 on luderick, which is full of data. As mentioned earlier, luderick had their advocates but they were mainly anglers who took a lot of care with the storage and preparation of their catches. In more recent times magazines have featured “tips” on luderick cooking, NSW celebrity chefs have adopted them and fish markets and fish shops have started to feature more skinned luderick fillets.

The FRDC report concludes that despite their increased popularity with consumers, luderick are unlikely to be growth overfished across their range, which is southern Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and northern Tasmania. It’s only in NSW that they’ve been heavily targeted both commercially and recreationally, but catches are down across the whole range. In NSW, commercial effort is down by about 50%, with an average harvest of 373 tonnes over the last 10 years, from a peak of over 800 tonnes in 1988.

In parallel to the reduced commercial take, NSW rec catches have declined from an estimated 383 tonnes in 2000/01 to 150 tonnes in 2013/14. The old experts are dying off, the art is becoming less fashionable, and the new entrants don’t seem to be as skilled generally as their forebears, despite all the tackle advances. In Victoria, luderick are essentially a bream fishing by-catch. There are also 10 fish bag limits now in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, and the report cites a study suggesting that 99% of rec-released line-caught luderick survive, and perhaps 87% released from gillnets.

The report notes that luderick can live 24 years, get to about 56cm (around 4kg), and 50% are mature at 4-4.5 years and 28-30cm. Which, if a size limit really is useful for the species, means that Queensland’s 30cm might be more sensible than NSW’s 27 and Victoria’s 23.

So, if species like luderick are well managed, by either rules or good luck, then their future should be OK. The report also notes that environmental changes to estuarine and coastal habitat are probably more impactful than fishing pressure for this species.

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