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Why South Australian Seafood Is the Best

Off the coast of South Australia, the Great Southern Ocean offers the perfect conditions for producing some of the best crustaceans, abalone and shellfish in the world.

2018-01-12 11:58:31 2018-01-17 18:12:19
Fisherman holding up a huge southern rock lobster
Fisherman holding up a huge southern rock lobster

The Great Southern Ocean is a fearsome place for a lobster fisherman. Stretching all along the southern coast of South Australia, the waves roll in uninterrupted from the freezing, pristine seas of Antarctica more than 3,000 kilometres to the south. “It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world,” says Andrew Ferguson, managing director of the lobster fishing business started by his father Robert in 1969. Now with seven family members involved in the business, Ferguson Australia runs eight lobster boats off the South Australian coast.

Crashing waves in the Great Southern Ocean
Crashing waves in the Great Southern Ocean

Although the Australian continental shelf is relatively shallow at 275 metres deep, waves that were generated in seas up to five kilometres deep in Antarctica still have deadly force. Until the advent of aluminium and fibreglass 40 years ago, along with modern weather and navigation equipment, the old wooden lobster boats would regularly break up at sea.

Braving the waves to catch lobsters off the South Australian Coast
Braving the waves to catch lobsters off the South Australian Coast

Even now, Andrew says, they frequently encounter waves of more than five metres. It’s akin to riding a giant rollercoaster, and only when winds go over 30 knots (55km/h) do they decide it’s “not comfortable”. But just as well—the ocean area from latitude 40 to the Antarctic Circle has the strongest average winds found on Earth.

Closer inshore, sea temperatures that slump as low as -2°C further south rise to around 13°C during winter, but this is still very cool for seafood and a perfect environment for what many regard as the finest lobsters in the world. The wild-caught Southern Rock Lobster (Jasus edwardsii) is noted for its superb taste and texture due to the nutrient-rich, cold, clean waters of the Southern Ocean. With its generous meat-to-shell ratio—almost double that of other lobster species—it is one of the world’s most indulgent food experiences.

Ferguson’s export and marketing manager Eliza Ferguson says the slow-growing lobster species has a sweet, delicate but firm white flesh, which means it’s perfect for sashimi, making it highly prized (and priced) as a result.

Southern Rock Lobsters
Southern Rock Lobsters

Equally important is the fact that these continental shelf waters are unaffected by industrial development, making them uniquely free from any human-induced pollution. This pristine environment combined with the mild Mediterranean climate conditions enable the flourishing of the world’s finest seafood.

It’s not just the lobster fishery that benefits from this. These waters are also home to some of the finest king prawns, giant crabs weighing up to 15kg—though the ones captured by Ferguson’s are usually in the 3kg to 5kg category—greenlip and blacklip abalone handcaught by specialist divers, mussels from the remote bays of western South Australia and pipis, or cockles, from its sprawling, unspoilt beaches.

THE SUSTAINABILITY FACTOR

As overfishing and pollution become global issues, sustainability has become a watchword. The Australian lobster fishery is one of the most carefully managed commercial wild fisheries in the world. Strict catch quotas, limited licenses, along with boat and pot numbers are evidence of the industry’s commitment to ecological sustainability, with the industry regularly funding compliance and research programs.

Third-generation scion of the family business Eliza Ferguson says it’s also a very secretive industry, with lobster fishermen staying very quiet about where and what they’ve caught. “Each fisherman keeps a precious logbook, it’s their life’s work and they keep it very close to their chests, for good reason,” she says. “They will hand it down to their children. The book keeps track of where they’ve fished, what they’ve fished and when they’ve fished. This ensures they never work the same areas the following year; it spreads what we call ‘the fishing effort’ over a large area. Most importantly, it keeps things sustainable.”

On the deck of a prawn trawler boat
On the deck of a prawn trawler boat

“We’re lucky in Australia, we’re such a young country and have learnt a lot about sustainability from the rest of the world. Many countries, like China, have out-fished their own waters and don’t have many actionable policies in place to fix it. As an industry, we’re working with the South Australian Rock Lobster Association to get certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which means our lobsters will be recognised as sustainably fished.”

For the Fergusons, lobster is not their main livelihood. While Ferguson’s doesn’t run their own prawn boats, they buy from the 40 or so licensed prawn fishermen who ply the equally pristine inshore waters of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf and West Coast, where they catch an average of 2,000 tonnes of prawns each season.

Spencer Gulf king prawns
Spencer Gulf king prawns

Spencer Gulf king prawns (Melicertus latisulcatus) are renowned throughout the world as the premium species of prawn, wild-caught straight from the cold clean waters of the gulf and full of natural flavour. Prawns are sorted, graded, packed and snap frozen at sea on modern, state-of-the-art vessels, ensuring this premium quality product reaches customers in top condition.

The Spencer Gulf king prawn fishery is a leader in environmentally friendly fishing practices and many of its initiatives and processes have been introduced worldwide. It was the first prawn fishery in the AsiaPacific region to be certified sustainable by the internationally recognised MSC.

The prawn fishermen work on a ‘real-time management’ system, where fishing takes place only in optimal environmental, social and economic conditions and changes can be implemented within an hour’s notice. Fishing does not take place until a survey of the prawn stocks has been conducted and harvest strategies developed based on the results.

Additionally, Singapore’s proximity to South Australia also means a reduction in food miles as compared to importing Boston lobsters from the United States, or Carabinero prawns from the east Atlantic and Mediterranean ocean.

FINDING FORTUNE IN HARVESTING ABALONE

A little further west, around the fishing capital of Port Lincoln—where the seafood industry has made the town home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Australia—you’ll find abalone divers who also seek their fortune in these clear offshore waters.

This is where adventurous divers, equipped with thick wetsuits, gloves, masks, weight belts and abalone irons for prising the creatures from the rocks, can earn up to AUD$120,000 in just 50 days.

As Port Lincoln local Luke Pike told Discovery Channel’s fifth season of Abalone Wars (2016): “You have the potential to make a million dollar catch, but not everyone will come home.”

Diving for abalone is risky business
Diving for abalone is risky business

Abalone diving in this part of the Great Southern Ocean is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, as the place is home to more sharks per square kilometre than almost anywhere else. Each diver deals with the danger in different ways. Some are ultracautious, using repellent Shark Shields or cages. The divers are most at risk when descending to the ocean floor or returning to the boat, as Great Whites attack from below. But it doesn’t appear to deter these brave divers from continuing to seek abalone “gold”, with green-lipped abalone the most valuable and in highest demand across Asia due to their beautiful colour.

Abalone licenses typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and can top AUD$1 million depending on the total quota entitlement under the license. The 22 existing abalone licenses change hands for up to $8 million, but with divers making up to a fifth of the profit, it’s no wonder people are lining up to do it despite ever increasing shark numbers.

Green lip abalone
Green lip abalone

Each bag of abalone that a diver sends up to the surface is worth approximately AUD$2,000, and divers need to fill a minimum of three bags per day in order to break even on overhead costs. Each abalone is handpicked by divers, partially processed and chilled on-board a specialised abalone fishing vessel, and then delivered to a processor who prepares the abalone for export the day after they are harvested.

Divers like Darryl Carrison happily embrace the danger, although he does wear chain mail for some sort of protection: “I must like the risk of what I do,” he says with a big grin. “Sometimes I hum the theme to Jaws when I’m down there.”

SHELLFISH BY THE SEASHORE

Much, much safer is another shellfish industry, that of mussels and pipis (cockles or clams), found in the untouched bays and beaches washed by the Great Southern Ocean.

Based in Port Lincoln, Kinkawooka Shellfish is an integrated seafood company owned and operated by the Puglisi family, fifth-generation fishermen with a rich heritage of producing high quality seafood.

Kinkawooka Shellfish grow their mussels in the cold, clean waters of Boston Bay, on the west coast of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, where they are harvested live from one of five low density sites around the bay—which is four times the size of Sydney Harbour.

The mussels average 65 to 85mm in length and have a consistent meat to shell ratio of 38 to 40%. Every mussel passes through four levels of quality assessment while travelling through the factory being graded, scrubbed, cleaned and de-bearded—making them pot-ready upon purchase. Conditioned and cooled in oxygenated saltwater, they are then packed in a unique Sea Sure pack that, as the name suggests, replicates the mussels’ natural environment to keep them alive and stress-free.

Kinkawooka is recognised by the International Seafood Sustainability organisation as a Friend of the Sea, with its products audited onsite by independent international certification bodies against strict Friend of the Sea sustainability criteria. The company is also accredited under an independently-audited food safety scheme that ensures the safe growing, harvesting, handling and transport of its mussels.

Perhaps the humblest shellfish of all, but also much prized by gourmands, is the pipi, harvested from South Australian beaches so remote they are accessible only by boat or four-wheel drive vehicles. The water is sparkling clear because of the rolling surf that constantly churns the beach and the fact that there is no human habitation within kilometres of the area.

Pipis taste great steamed or simply grilled on a barbecue
Pipis taste great steamed or simply grilled on a barbecue

These sweet and nutty sand-dwellers have an unmatched firm and satisfying texture. They’ve long been a delicacy in Asia, where they’re often called “butterfly clams” because of their shell shape, and are now a feature on many of Australia’s best restaurant menus. They taste great steamed, added to soups and paellas, or simply grilled on a barbecue with garlic and oil. Their small size and 35% meat-to-shell ratio make them a substantial addition to many dishes.

To gather these pipis, a small group of diggers manually harvest them on a 60-kilometre stretch of uninhabited wild ocean beach in a remote part of the Coorong National Park in South Australia. After the pipis are scooped up, they are quickly transferred to giant tanks of seawater where they are kept for at least 24 hours so they can shed all of their sand, becoming clean and ready for consumption. They are then packed into Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) for an extended shelf life of 10 days, or blast-frozen immediately to maintain top quality.

The producers grouped together under Goolwa Pipi Co. make up more than half of the pipi industry in South Australia. Each year, they harvest about 300 tonnes of pipis, working with the government to maintain environmental and economic harvesting limits, and aligning with the MSC who monitor all fishing activities to ensure that the fishery is sustainably managed. The Goolwa pipi fishery is one of the few fisheries in the world to have gained MSC accreditation.

Diggers manually harvesting pipis from a beach in Coorong National Park, South Australia
Diggers manually harvesting pipis from a beach in Coorong National Park, South Australia

“We have a reputation for harvesting the best pipis in the nation,” says Pipi Co. managing director Tom Robinson. “The pipis we harvest are smaller in size and sweeter in flavour than any other pipis, and they’re popular among consumers because they provide more flesh per kilogram.

“In Australia, it used to only be Asian restaurants that wanted pipis, but now we have demand across all sectors, largely because they’re so versatile,” Robinson says. “You see them in pasta, seafood broths, and salads. My favourite [way to enjoy them] is to toss them on the barbecue, take them off just as the shells begin to open and smother them in butter, garlic, lemon juice, tarragon and capers. They just add something special to a dish.”

Ferguson lobster and king prawns, Blue Sky Fisheries abalone, Kinkawooka mussels and Goolwa Pipi Co pipis are available for purchase online, through Artisan Selections Australia. 

Nigel Hopkins
Nigel Hopkins is an award-winning journalist based in Adelaide, South Australia. He’s worked as a newspaper feature writer and editor for Australian and a wide range of international publications, with particular experience writing about the food, wine and travel sectors.

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