Nautical Seafood

LUKE Buchholz is a humble fisherman by trade and based in South West Rocks on the Mid-North coast of NSW. His business, Nautical Seafood, is more than just a pay check. He supplies some of Australia’s finest restaurants with the highest quality seafood this country has to offer. His methodology in harvesting, dispatching and caring for his catch raises the bar for seafood potential. Commercial operators that share this ethos enable chefs to prepare dishes with unparalleled texture, flavour and presentation. It all starts with the catch. 

Chefs are constantly on the search for commercial anglers whose seafood consistently appears like it has just come out of the ocean when it is open for auction at the fish market bidding wars. Once the names of people like Luke have been detected, they get looked after. Restauranteurs will buy directly from fishermen, avoiding the uncertainty of the market floor. Restaurants like Fish Butchery can trust Nautical Seafood’s produce to be of a high standard and need to maintain their product consistency. There is never sacrifice to the experience of the eventual consumers meal. 

Luke takes pride in what he does. His boat, workshop and seafood wholesaler are well-maintained, hygienic and constantly being improved. When I met up with Luke, I had no idea what he or his place within the industry would be like. I had preconceived notions of a “take” mentality with minimal conscience on respecting each individual fish. Luke’s philosophy was clear from the start, it was very refreshing.

Luke believes he isn’t the best fisherman in NSW by any stretch. He has only been doing it commercially for a short period compared to the majority who have had techniques and equipment passed through the generations. Luke made a career change from being a sparky and came into the fishing world with a fresh set of eyes. He found that he wasn’t catching as much as he expected. So he decided to place greater effort towards the treatment of each species. 

Over time he improved his catching success. Making connections with other commercial fishermen who were paving the way with similar processes. Next thing you know he is starring down the barrel of earning up to five times more per kilo than his constituents using old-school strategies around making their money through maximum quantities. Quality will always prevail over quantity. 

Hypothetically, suppose bonito was selling for an underwhelming $3-4 per kilo at the market. Some businesses have the mentality that they need to catch more to make up for their wages, licenses and other overheads. This picture is synonymous with the stereotypes shared by people outside the industry, particularly recreational anglers. It has had a devastating impact on aquatic environments. Does it need to be this way?

With people consuming and demanding more and more fish, those selling in the masses hold their place. Where does the buck stop with the blame or is it time that everyone starts placing greater concern about the environment as a whole? Is their education within the industry around quality handling for those that could improve the quality of their catch? 

In Nautical Seafood’s case, their catch is highly sought after. Their space amongst restaurants is only shared by a few thoughtful line-caught commercial vessels. However, consumers and restaurants are becoming more conscious. The abundance of establishments serving premium fish as opposed to whatever they can get their hands on is growing. Is there going to be a trending shift amongst the primary producer’s ideologies?

In this day and age knowing where your protein comes from is empowering. For me to be able to witness the care and thought that exists in commercial fish was reassuring. If you aren’t sure, just ask how and where the fish has been sourced. Put the imputes back onto businesses to source less environmentally impactful seafood. Let’s face it, there is a huge need and not everyone has access to regular recreational fishing. Line caught over trawled, netted and trapped fish is essential. 

Nautical Seafood is not just a seafood supplier to the rich and famous. During the school holidays, they open up shop to sell their catch locally. The influx of holidaymakers who love visiting South West Rocks plus the fortunate locals get the rare opportunity to purchase premium cuts of fish. Luke is handy with a blade and cuts up a mouthwatering display of freshly shucked oysters, sashimi and fillets of his best catch. He also has used the knowledge of the restaurants he supplies to employ techniques such as dry ageing, cut scaling and dry handling. Check out their social media channels for a bit of window shopping. 

Fish care

This is the key to everything. Higher profits for taking less of our ocean’s precious stock. On the back of care for fish enabling a longer shelf life, firmer texture and savoury flavour. How does he do it?

Luke has several essential techniques, pieces of equipment and thought processes that facilitates pristine seafood being shipped down to the Sydney Fish Markets. Firstly, he doesn’t go out for days on end until he reaches his quotas. Luke will punch it out for a day mission, just like most recreational anglers. By doing this he can get the fish back to his wholesaler where he can control variables far more efficiently. Any boat keeping its fish on board for prolonged periods is at risk. Most in these situations are equipped with controlled temperature ice slurries. Situations such as power failure and poor seas that could potentially bruise the fish make things more difficult to manage. 

Luke’s setup amazed me. The main reason was that it was almost identical to boats that I had recreationally fished on. He didn’t have any inbuilt refrigeration, just a larger-than-normal ice box. Luke prefers to use rounded cubed ice in his slurries so that when the boat rocked there were no sharp edges that could knock a few scales off. That is the level of scrutiny the top restaurants place upon their producers. Crushed ice was beneficial when packing and distributing the fish as it moulded to the shape of the species keeping the temperature more regularly spread across the surface of the skin. 

Every single fish that came across the gunnels was brain spiked using Ike Jime techniques. Then bled on either side of the gills. Luke used snips to cut a section of the gills and the membrane that connects the gill to the body. He reduced the risk of bruising by placing the fish in his ice slurry directly after this process. They never hit the deck flapping around. The ice slurry was roughly a 50/50 mix of ice and water, with plenty of room for even a large hall to be completely immersed in the cold fluid. 

After arriving home. Luke weighed the fish and stored them in even larger ice boxes next to his ice machine. Where he regularly checks the state and temperature of the holding environment. 

Each tub of fish is laid with crushed ice. Then a plastic sheet separates the ice from the fish. Avoid fish coming into contact with water that can ruin the flavour, texture and shelf life. He soldier packs them like sardines. They aren’t just thrown around willy nilly… A neat and tidy operation. 

Our session

Bait collecting was efficient, to say the least. Luke pulled up to his spot, anchored. Started burleying. Grabbed a bunch of yakkas on the sabiki and then started lobbing homemade spinning lures and pillies for Bonito that were eating cubes out the back. Each bonito was cared for. Those that weren’t going to be used as bait later could be sold upon return.

Watsons leaping bonito are an epic-looking species. We know that they are great sashimi fish. But we wanted to see why Luke’s fish were selling for so much more than the majority of fish being sold at the market. Also, to observe the impact of proper fish care on the taste and texture of the fish. So Luke left one bonito that was not brain spiked or bled, it was put into the ice slurry but could be heard banging around in the ice box for a few minutes before slowing down to a stop. It is in the name of science, but unfortunately, most people are treating their fish this way recreational and commercial. Keep reading to hear how it all went…

Winter has just hit. What this means for the fishing is that the current is slowing down and there is an opportunity to deep drop out wide. We planned to collect some bait and see what we could raise from depths up to 550m. Using large sash weights to send a string of 5 large slabs of Bonito down. The electric reel is what allows Luke to manoeuvre the boat so that the line is as vertical as possible. Despite the sheer weight of the sash weight, anything over 1.5 knots of current will make it difficult to fish deeper. He does it all solo. So he runs a tight operation, regularly letting off slack line to stay in contact with the bottom. 

We were chasing blue eye trevalla. Fishing different sections of sea mounts and rises on the sea floor off the shelf. Sounding in depths this immense takes a bit of experience. To be able to differentiate between bycatch and target species takes a lot of trial and error. A thin layer on the bottom often indicates the presence gem fish. A respectable bycatch, they just don’t get that big in this zone. 

When you start to see little bites on the rod tip there is always a sense of excitement. What is happening down there? The fish on the bottom have to take advantage of whatever food makes it down to their habitat. Usually eager to fight over your bait offerings. We were using fresh bonito which must be a rare delicacy for these deep dwellers. Whatever you do catch, they have very distinct adaptations that have allowed their success where the light does not penetrate. 

Anyone that has eaten blue eye trevalla knows why people go to great lengths to catch them. Luke had marks on his GPS where he had previously experienced success. Usually off the back edge of rises and holes. We fished in a variety of depths ranging from 300 – 500m and gave it our all. Time flies if you aren’t getting the target species because each drop can take 30 minutes with driving to the spot, rebaiting and getting up and down from the bottom. We caught a bunch of gem fish and green eye sharks. No blue eye. On the way in we tried in 100-150m for a quick chance at a bar cod to no prevail.

It was refreshing to see that commercial operators are still fishing and not just catching. The gear that Luke has for deep-dropping was almost identical to what I had used in the past. He has to work hard to get his quotas. Line fishing commercially means that you aren’t going to be removing entire schools of fish. Time passed and we had to go in, Luke seemed unphased. Knowing that there will be another opportunity tomorrow and that you have to learn from these days and continue to adapt to the conditions.

Back at the Nautical Seafood Wholesaler

It was time to compare the two bonito from the same school caught within a minute or two of each other on a very short fight. One has been cared for using the Nautical Seafood protocol of Ike Jime, thorough bleeding and placed into the ice slurry. The other was only placed in the ice slurry. 

Luke first took the fillets off the fish. The fish that had not been bled was oozing blood out of the spine and gills section. If it had been bled immediately this arterial blood would have been pressurised from the heart and been able to squirt out. We both noticed that the capillaries in the flesh were visible. Capillaries are single-cell walled blood vessels that are so tiny that they allow oxygen to diffuse into working cells, collecting carbon dioxide to remove as waste. The fish that had been cared for had no visible capillaries. 

Luke cut a small slither of sashimi from each using the same section. On a white chopping board, the results were highlighted with vivid colour contrast. The cared-for fish was distinctly clearer than the darker red non-bled example. We both had a taste. Ideally, both of these fish would have been given a day or two to set before consumption. Still a fair test. We both were unable to pick up on too much difference in the flavour, over time this could change. The main difference was in the texture. The non-bled fish was remarkably softer. This is because of the unchecked lactic acid build-up enabled without braid spiking the fish. Cooking the flesh. Reducing the overall shelf life. The blood impregnated in the meat would have increased the risk of ammonia building up and a fishy flavour developing over time, a breeding ground for bacteria. 

It was encouraging to see that the extra effort is worthwhile. A minute of care with each fish landed makes a substantial difference. Luke then made a delicious ceviche. The two different fillets were placed in separate bowls with seasonal produce and lime to cure the meat. We gave it 15 minutes for the lime to do its work. Coming back to taste, the firm texture of the cared-for fish outshone the mushy texture of the specimen that didn’t get the full treatment. 

Thanks to Luke from Nautical Seafood for sharing his processes and time in a fun day on the water.

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