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Following Kingfish Part I

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Notes from the field: ethnographic encounters following Kingfish at Sydney Fish Market.

Through the Sustainable Fish Lab research at the Sydney Fish Market, we plan to follow many fish on their way to becoming food. Our aim is to uncover the complex socio-cultural, environmental, economic, political and personal layers of harvesting, trading, regulating, and eating fish.

The Auction

Our following of kingfish begins on the auction floor at 8am on March 22nd 2017. Our knowledgeable tour guide, Alex, had just shared with us numerous fish facts on several of the hundred or so species traded that morning – tips on how to read a fish for freshness, and why obscure and cheap species often taste better.

As the auction came to an end Tony Wearne (fishmonger and buyer for seafood traders Nicholas Seafood and Peters) called me over to view his morning’s purchase.

We walked passed ‘wheelers’, men who were readying boxes of fish to take off the auction floor. “Here he is” said Tony, indicating to a styrofoam box labelled yellowtail kingfish. Tony began to explain the provenance of the catch:

This is one of my fishermen … he’s a young 28 year old kid, and his the keenest young fisherman … basically what he has is a small electric boat and he goes out on his own, he launches it in Baddow Bay, just near Terrigal there, he goes out and he catches basically bonito, mostly, kingfish… He’s found a little spot … Yeah, so, he pulls up there and gets these [showing me the fish] and he brain spikes them and he pulls them in.

Tony searches for the mark of the brain spike, a method he says is the most humane way to kill fish, using the Japanese ikejime method. It just makes the quality amazing, says Tony, and “you can just see how beautiful [the fish are]”.

Tony has a wealth of knowledge and something of an intuition when it comes to spotting a good fish. He has learned the trade over the last twelve years, starting in his hometown of Newcastle (Australia). “I spent two years … just scaling fish before I even picked up a knife”, Tony told me, after which time he became skilled at filleting fish, travelled overseas, and worked in various fish markets, including a brief period at the famous Billingsgate fish market. “Back then I was just a filleter. I was learning a lot still but that was a great experience. I was just filleting”.

Like many people in the industry with whom we have spoken, the trade got under his skin and he stayed, relinquishing his plans to become a teacher. So, on return to Sydney he came to Sydney Fish Markets and stayed.

A Changing Industry

Now an experienced buyer, Tony works with top end restaurants, mainly in the Sydney CBD and east, including his flagship restaurant Saint Peter in Paddington. He tends to work with chefs who, he says, favour local, wild caught and sustainable fish and are more experimental.

Tony has noticed a change in restaurants and the way they approach seafood:

Even in this last year, ah, initially there was a big push towards sustainability but now there’s also a big push towards using more obscure things, bycatches and things. Things that we’ve never thought of … are becoming quite popular in restaurants. And there’s certain chefs that are kind of leading the charge in that way.

Education about the nature of fish and fishing is essential to these changes, suggests Tony:

I deal with a lot of chefs and … they need to be versatile and they need to understand that … everything is obviously determined by all those factors – the weather, the price of petrol, the moon cycles and things like that. They need to be able to roll with the punches, if they put something on their menu that they can’t get, they need to be able to swap and change it or whatever. And people need to understand that, that’s the changing nature of the seafood industry. Every day you might have something one day and the next day it may not be there.

Tony is confident that chefs and customers are being a lot more experimental and adventurous. “They’re trying to find, you know, different ways, different forms of fish”, he says.

There’s a whole push to using the whole fish, you know the whole nose to tail thing. So, using every part of the fish as well, which is really good. And I’ve noticed I’ve been getting more and more ah chefs that are quite happy with swapping and changing daily. You know and not actually setting a menu and demanding that kind of fish.

Trust in the Fishmonger

They [chefs] have to rely on their fishmonger in the end to tell them what’s in season, what’s available, what’s good quality etc. You know. If you demand a certain thing then you run the risk of your buyer trying to buy it and giving you a substandard product or you know… It’s just learning to basically trust your fishmonger I suppose. Because we’re in the right position to make the call, we’re on the auction floor every morning, we see what’s there… It’s basically having a good relationship with your fishmonger.

The role of the fishmonger and trust in the fishmonger are essential to changing restaurant practices.

…once upon a time the seafood industry lost a lot of trust … I’m talking fifteen twenty years ago. There were probably a few dodgy practices going on and since then there’s been this big push to labelling fish and knowing where it comes from and using sustainable fish and using Australian products and that sort of stuff. And I think now it’s gotten back to a point where, yeah, and people are trusting their fishmongers and are relying on them to give them the right information and the right products and that kind of stuff.

Trust also extends to the relationship between the fishmonger and the fisher. I asked Tony how easy it is to know the provenance of the fish?

I suppose I’ve just learned that through doing it for years… it’s from seeing their [fishermen’s] fish at the auction and thinking that’s a beautiful fish, this fisherman actually looks after his fish, and I go and track the fishermen down … I basically now know by looking at the box … where the actual fish is being caught, whether it’s in the local rivers here or down south, or the north coast and that… I suppose you get to know through doing it over and over again and asking questions … and you get to know certain species and certain quality fish comes from different areas, and so yeah you do learn.

Future followings

From his small boat, the young kingfish fisherman, lands the fish and loads it onto a truck, which passes by his house four times a week on route to Sydney Fish Market. The truck comes down the coast from Coffs Harbour and for $2 a box fishers can load their catch aboard to make its way to Sydney Fish Market by midnight.

Tony’s kingfish was then bound for the Cottage Point Inn, a fine dining restaurant situated on the riverside at Cottage Point fifty minutes north of Sydney CBD.

Our next stop will be to visit the young fisherman on the Central Coast. We also plan to follow some imported fish to explore our industry’s relationship with foreign fisheries, bringing to question what defines local and exploring these issues beyond a niche restaurant market.

Image: Tony Wearne holding two mackerel. Unfortunately on the day the photo was taken there were no kingfish.