ENVIRONMENT: When barras ain’t barras…


NO denying that that the barramundi has the status of an Australian iconic species. How many thousands of words have you read about them and hundreds of pictures have you looked at in Fisho over the years? For an angler, they’re a fabulous and often frustrating species that will turn on one day and off the next, boom and bust. Twenty-five years of chasing them and they can still frustrate and confuse me, much like my other favourite Australian bass and luderick. Get a good wet up north and the season’s fabulous…. get a bad wet, and the best planned trip can end up disappointing.

Lately there have been a bunch of stories in the print and electronic media about fish substitution generally and, as well, about imported barra and whether it should be sold as barra here. Very tricky question. Barramundi range all the way from northern Australia through Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, India and Sri Lanka. Beyond PNG they’re generally known as Asian seabass and are extensively farmed. Lots of those farmed fish end up in Australia, where they’re all sold as barramundi, both because local consumers know them under their local name and retailers are supposed to use a single, accurate name for the fish they sell. Now those same retailers are also supposed to show country of origin as well as species name, which the good ones do. But that doesn’t apply to restaurants and fish-and-chip shops.

Does this really matter? Local barra farmers certainly think it does and on October 18 promoted National Barramundi Day with the support of over 40 restaurants around the country to support the local barra industry. The SMH and the ABC ran pieces which debated the merits of locally farmed barra against imports. Fair enough, but some of their claims look a bit questionable.

Let’s start with quality. A really fresh fillet of barra, or a whole small fish, cooked well by a good chef or amateur cook is delightful. But I’d argue that’s about cooking skill and freshness rather than source. It’s also complicated by commercial catchers of wild barra suggesting that their product is better than the farmed. That, I’d suggest, is also contestable but it muddies the waters around the local vs imported debate. And suggestions about imported barra being cheaper because of lower production standards or regulation don’t really ring true, given Australia’s strict biosecurity and import standards. If it’s cheaper, it’s likely because labour costs in the countries of origin are way lower than here. And if it’s badly cooked and let stand as often happens at big catered functions no barra is all that good to eat, unlike firmer large-flaked fish like blue eye or hapuka, which can tolerate such treatment, and that actually damages its reputation as a fine eating fish.

So, is there an answer to this issue? It’s a bit like the French protecting the names for champagne and burgundy or the Kiwis trying to claim the label manuka honey exclusively as theirs. That hasn’t impressed our winemakers or beekeepers all that much. But it’s more complex, because at the end of the day a barra is a barra, lates calcarifer.

Maybe the best we can do is push for more accurate labelling standards for all such as “Wild Caught Australian Barramundi”, “Farmed Australian Barramundi” or “Imported Farmed Barramundi”, which top retailers already use. Then purchasers can make their choices based on both patriotism and price.

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