Bay of Plenty
Bay of Plenty
Jackie Macdonald meets the colourful characters sustaining Australia’s seafood industry.
Published Selector Summer 11/12
Standing on a Hervey Bay pier at 6am in June, the pre-dawn air certainly has a nip to it. But it’s nowhere near cold enough to explain the icicles hanging from the beard of Grub, a rugged-set fisherman on board the Somatina, one of the Australian Ocean King Prawn Company’s fishing vessels. There’s only one way you could get that cold on Queensland’s Fraser Coast.
Grub is standing in the Somatina’s freezer, where, in temperatures of below -40ºC, stacks of prawn-filled boxes are waiting to be unloaded. This delicious loot has been landed over a five-week period at sea and snap frozen to ensure optimum freshness.
With a refrigerated truck backed up to the trawler, it’s time to get the prawns on their way. Grub starts the ball rolling, throwing a five kilogram box to his crewmate on deck, who then throws it along to the next man in the chain and so on until it lands with the last man in the link, 70-year-old Barry Murphy.
While Barry’s son Stephen is now Australian Ocean King Prawn Company’s man at the helm, Barry still oversees the unloading of the trawlers every Wednesday.
Having had a tourist boat for six years, Barry turned to commercial fishing over 25 years ago. Starting with a couple of timber boats, he’s seen the company grow to its current fleet of six modern EU accredited steel vessels, landing a combined total of 300-400 tonnes of prawns per year.
The Somatina and its five sister vessels are all named after Barry’s grandchildren, Stephen’s brother is a skipper and the family connection continues in the office where Stephen’s niece is employed.
Among the 400-500 Hervey Bay locals employed in the seafood industry, there are many families like the Murphys who’d love to see this sector continue well into the future. Of course, this depends on the industry embracing the changes necessary to enable the environment to continue providing.
A sustainable future
According to Stephen, this changed approach has been embraced: “Industry as a whole is committed to the sustainability of the fishery and to the marine environment that we rely on. This is done through continually trying to improve such things as by-catch reduction devices and fishing practices.”
And you only have to poke your head into the Australian Ocean King Prawn Company’s factory to see these initiatives at work. Handling giant plastic needles with the dexterity of a CWA knitting champion, a team of burley blokes sews huge fishing nets.
Apart from the fascination of observing these men at work, the nets themselves are intriguing.
When you picture a fishing net you normally envisage a mesh of diamond-shaped holes. These nets, however, are made with square holes, a simple yet highly significant design change.
The benefit is that unlike diamond-shaped holes, square ones or square mesh codend (SMC) don’t close up when the net is pulled taut, so the bycatch is able to swim out.
While the bycatch that escapes through the SMCs is generally made up of small creatures such as urchins, small shellfish and crabs, bigger species such as turtles, sharks and rays can also meet a grisly, unnecessary end in trawler nets. To stop this, it’s mandatory for all Queensland East Coast Trawl Fishery nets to be fitted with Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs).
These basic-looking metal tools are highly effective and when used with the SMCs, according to scallop fishery trials conducted by Queensland’s Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, TEDs have been shown to “reduce bycatch by up to 77 per cent and reduce the capture of undersized scallops with no loss of legal-sized scallops.”
As he explains the ins and outs of the nets and devices, it’s obvious that for Stephen Murphy, his job is much more than a means to an end. It is, he says, a source of great personal satisfaction: “I think what I enjoy most about being a part of the industry is the same as any primary producer in that we are supplying food for people and the food we supply is high-quality, sustainable and healthy.”
Letting the sea bed doze
Another Hervey Bay local with equal enthusiasm for the seafood industry is Nicole Warwick, manager of Hervey Bay Fisheries. She enthuses, “I love the seafood industry; it is alive, fast, fresh and very rewarding knowing you are producing a beautiful and sustainable Australian product.”
Among Hervey Bay Fisheries’ catch are prawns, fish, mudcrabs, bugs and oysters. But their highest profile and, arguably, most glamorous, haul are Hervey Bay scallops.
Unique in that they are devoid of the roe that distinguishes other scallops, these pristine nuggets of smooth, fishy goodness have an enviable reputation at home and internationally, not to mention a deliciously distinct crunch.
As mouth-watering as these morsels may be, unfortunately scallop dredging has a history tainted with sea bed destruction. However, as Nicole explains, Hervey Bay Fisheries is helping to reverse this reputation through environmentally kinder practices.
“Our scallops are caught on trawlers that run out lengths of boards with a series of chains attached. The boards are trawled, suspended above the sea floor and the fingers of chain run through the sand, startling the scallops so they jump from the floor and are caught in nets with very little impact on the sea bed.”
This method guarantees not only less damage and a steady flow of scallops to consumers, but also the jobs of Hervey Bay Fisheries’ 24 employees.
A peek inside their seafood processing factory reveals a flurry of sorting, washing, shelling and grading. Each of the 10 or so women working at any one time has a specific job and some of them have been doing it for 20 years or more. That’s an incredible amount of shells removed, scallops washed or grades decided.
Seafood open day
While these factories are not generally open to the public, there’s one day in August when all is revealed.
For 11 years now, Hervey Bay has played host to an annual seafood festival. Bringing together all parties in the seafood industry, from fishers to processors, managers and scientists, it’s a great opportunity for the local community to come together and not only sample the goods, but also learn about the seafood, from boat to barbecue.
The brains behind the festival is Elaine Lewthwaite, whose waxing lyrical about the event reveals an enviable passion for the industry that’s sustained her family for a great many years.
Of 2011’s festival, Elaine said, “It was a glorious winter’s day, the park was magnificent and the festival was attended by around 10,000 people.”
A highlight for Elaine was a hub, which, she says, “was all about sustainability of the products and working in the natural environment.” Adjoining this stage was a display by the Queensland Seafood Industry Association that included an emissions calculator for the seafood industry.
There was also a programme put together by local fisherman Des Finlay that explained sustainable fishing on the Fraser Coast, including how mesh sizes work and the benefits of local knowledge.
For an industry that’s stereotypically populated by solitary men whose job criteria has little call for verbosity, Elaine says the festival requires them to step out of their comfort zone and spruik the many positives of their trade.
“Many of these fishermen have become skilled communicators from being involved in the festival and this year the novices came away so motivated from their first interaction with the public in a pleasant situation.”
If even a fraction of the festival’s visitors came away with a greater understanding of this industry, it’s a huge achievement in opening eyes to the complexities of food supply. Like everything that ends up on our plates, seafood is rarely given any consideration before it’s shelled, shucked, sizzled then swallowed. But we’d all be up in arms if the traditional Aussie Christmas seafood feast were threatened.
But with fishers like those in Hervey Bay securing the sustainability of our waters, we can look forward to the devouring of many a prawn to come.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors