Some 25 000 tonnes of prawns are caught from Australian waters per year. A great deal of these will end up on our tables on Christmas Day, as our enthusiasm for "chucking a prawn on the BBQ," has become almost ritualistic. So mention the word Christmas to a prawn and he will be shaking in his 10 little boots.
About a half of our domestic catch ends up being exported, as the rest of the world knows a good thing when they taste it, and our prawns are quite simply some of the best in the world. The best of the best in my opinion is the Spencer Gulf king prawn; ask a local and they will say it's the cold waters of this region that are responsible for its amazing flavour.
I am calling the Spencer Gulf king prawn the luckiest prawn in the world this year, they need not worry too much as Christmas approaches because someone is looking out for them. This year they gained Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. They have joined the other 133 globally independently certified ecologically sustainable fisheries. The MSC, a global not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping transform the seafood market to a more sustainable basis, has given its stamp of approval for the Spencer Gulf king prawn fishery.
Pat Caleo, MSC Manager of Australia and New Zealand explains, "The Spencer Gulf king prawn fishery is the first prawn fishery of any type in Australia and the Asia Pacific region to be certified by the MSC. It is also the first king prawn fishery in the world to be certified. This is quite an achievement, as fisheries need to demonstrate they are well managed and sustainable against the world's most rigorous and science based standard in order to carry the MSC ecolabel."
Simon Clark, Executive Officer of the Spencer Gulf and West Coast Prawn Fisherman's Association explains that the accreditation is testament to the current and previous generations of prawn fishermen in the Gulf who had been working co-operatively and responsibly with scientists and government bodies for years. These fellas had the foresight to see the Gulf had to be fished with care and responsibly if it was to be a resource for the future. More recently it has been working with World Wildlife Fund and Conservation Council South Australia. It's a great example of an industry working in consultation with environmental bodies for a win-win for everyone.
A good proportion of the existing (and strictly limited to) 39 trawler licenses have been passed down within the family to the next generation. It's no walk in the park skippering and crewing on a trawler. Although boats only work approximately 50 days a year, crews can leave in the early afternoon and undertake a 10 to 15 hour steam, fish and process all night. Then on a big night process up to 2 tonne on board through to midday, to ensure the catch reaches home in top condition.
Sure these prawns cost a little more but the price not only reflects the amount of hard work the "prawnies" do but also the level of science and research that goes into preserving the Gulf and its prawn stocks.
Three fisheries independent surveys are undertaken per year to develop harvest strategies. The harvest strategies are based on trying to maximise the prawn size of the catch which ensures that stocks that have already reproduced are taken, while immature stocks are left untouched giving them an opportunity to reach maturity, breed and replenish stock levels. There are also triggers that will stop fishing such as a minimum catch per night or prawn sizes drop below a set limit. There is a strange yet very sound logic in relation to this fishery's (a world first) real time management. When catches drop to a certain level or the prawns are deemed too small, the Committee at Sea will immediately close the area to fishing. This actually makes a lot of sense, it means the stocks are low or prawns are too small and the area needs to be left alone.
Only 15% of the Gulf is fished in a relatively short period, a proportionately small footprint compared to a lot of global operations. Licensees are out about 50 nights per year (down from as high as 280 nights per year of the past) and their combined efforts pull about 2 000 tonnes of Spencer Gulf king prawns per year. It is a relatively small yet valuable part of the Australian domestic total.
It is also one of the lowest by-catch fisheries in the world , a grill system on the boats tables (called hoppers) allows the prawns to fall through , while the remaining by-catch is immediately returned to the water to increase survivability rates, which is another key "minimum footprint" measure.
So this Christmas be nice to prawns and don't just, "chuck one on the barbie," but gently place a MSC certified Spencer Gulf king prawn down on the hot plate and show that you spared a thought for our oceans.
salt baked msc spencer gulf king prawn with "sort of " nouc mam cham
serves 4 as a generous entree
1 kg rock salt
12 whole green u/10 or u/8 (huge!) MSC certified Spencer Gulf King Prawns
5 kaffir lime leaves
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
6 whole big red dried chili
2 cassia sticks
6 star anise
Spread out the rock salt in a wok or on a flat top bbq and heat on full tilt. Stand back as the salt will pop and crackle as the moisture evaporates, a few pieces might even launch themselves!
Once it's very, very hot (after about 10 mins), dig a trench or hole in the salt, place the prawns and spices in then cover over with rock salt. The heat of the salt cooks the prawns in about 5 mins. When juice starts oozing out of the prawn is beyond ready.
Unbury the prawns, shake off excess salt Dip a prawn completely in the dipping sauce and eat (starting at the head)!
nouc mam cham
60 ml rice vinegar
60 ml coconut water (sometimes called young coconut juice, it's the pale "water" you get when you crack a fresh coconut, but is available tinned in Asian grocers)
3 tablespoons caster sugar
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 bird's eye chilli, thinly sliced (remove seeds if you don't like it hot)
40 ml lime or lemon juice
Combine all ingredients and whisk until sugar dissolved.
where's the bycatch?
Depending on who's data you believe there seems to be a growing awareness that the species that appear on most menus and the fishing methods employed for these fish are simply not sustainable.
Not too far down the track we will be increasingly turning to fish that during my early cooking career chefs wouldn't dare put on the menu. The price we are paying for a lot of fish is alarming but still may not truly represent the scarcity, but Ocean Jacket and Coorong Mullet are my two fish of choice for menus at the moment.
But I'm not just talking about any old Ocean Jackets, as there are a lot of cheap imports. For a fish to be sustainable it is not just the species that needs to be accounted for but the way the fish is caught and who is doing it.
Sea Rover Wild Catch Fisheries trap their Ocean Jackets a few hours out of Coffin Bay. What interests me about this (largely time consuming and now unpopular) method of fishing is the potential for almost zero by catch. Have a look at the photo, the cage is ZERO bycatch and that's important if you care about the oceans. You chuck the trap (a cage really) down, put something tasty in it and pull it back up. If anything else has hopped in the trap (any undersized Jackets or different species) they are undamaged and can be popped back in, this is a vastly different scenario to trawling. Hugh Bayly at Sea Rover reckons this way he can target fish two to four years old and furthermore the ocean floor is completely undamaged. This takes a fisherman who knows his craft and cares that the species he is chasing will be around for his kids to fish.
The fish itself is also completely unbruised so that tight little texture and close grain are in perfect condition. The time from catch, processing and subsequent delivery to market is also what makes a small scale local product just fresher and better tasting.
It's one thing that we have a renewable sustainable family business pulling these little guys up but are they tasty? The answer is yes, the trunks are skinned when they hit the vendor so that misconception of how difficult they are to clean is irrelevant. They are difficult to fillet but who cares, nothing tastes better than a fish cooked on the bone so just roast the whole trunk which is essentially the fish without a head. Hugh's fish are available at International Oyster and Seafoods and Samtass Bros Seafoods, so get "googling."
The other interesting operation is Coorong Wild Seafood. Glen Hill has been chucking a fishing net nearly 20 years. This is a guy who is passionate about the sustainability of the Lakes and Coorong. I went out with Glenn and by gill netting he can target the exact size and species that he is chasing. This takes years of experience to know where the fish are running and at what depth (and even what the local pelicans are up to, which will also determine the depth that the fish are swimming). When that net comes up any small fish have been able to swim straight through so no issue with anything undersized being pulled. The systems that are being used by the fishery have earned the stringent Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) certification for four species they fish.
The fish I like best is the Coorong (yellow eye) Mullet. This tastes so much sweeter than any other mullet and is one of South Australia's most under rated fish. This is due to the salinity in the Coorong and the unique local food sources it feeds on. You can get whole fish or if you have an aversion to too much work or bone just grab the butterfly fillets. The fish has a firm texture, good level of omega 3 and 6 and has an excellent moisture content which gives a good margin of error when cooking.
ocean jacket trunk, buckwheat noodle in light miso
serves 2 as a main course
½ leek end, chopped
½ small daikon, chopped
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
mushroom stems from enoki (used in garnish - see below)
1 clove garlic
3 cm piece kombu seaweed
1 tablespoon dried anchovy
800 -1000 ml water
3 tablespoons white miso paste
Remove the heads of the enoki mushrooms and set aside with the ingredients for the "garnish". Halve garlic and onion, roughly chop leek and daikon. Place in 1.5 litre pot with dried shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushroom stems and water. Simmer for 30 mins, add the anchovy and kombu, simmer a further 30 mins and strain, reserve the shiitake mushrooms.
Add miso to the strained stock and whisk until dissolved, keep warm.
miso marinade for fish
1 large (or two small) Sea Rover Wild Catch Fisheries ocean jacket trunk
3 tablespoon white miso paste
50 ml sake
75 ml mirin
1 teaspoon sugar
Heat sake, mirin and sugar, then flame. Once the flame has cooked out, remove from heat and stir in miso paste. Dip the fish segments into the miso marinade. Then place fish in 180°C oven for about 12 mins to cook through.
50 g soba noodles
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil to fry mushrooms
50 g enoki mushrooms (stems previously removed to use in the soup - see above)
3 shiitake mushrooms (reserved from the soup - see above)
75 g oyster mushrooms
pinch dirt(y) spring bay tasmanian wakame
1 stem spring onion greens, cut diagonally
½ sheet nori, julienned (roll it up and cut with scissors into 2 mm wide "noodles")
Put soba noodles in a large pot of boiling water, add a cup of cold water and bring back to the boil, add another cup of cold water and bring to the boil again. Simmer for 8 mins. Strain and run under cold water until starch from noodles is removed.
Rip oyster mushrooms apart. Using the shiitake mushrooms from stock, remove and discard stems and slice caps thinly. In a hot pan sauté the mushrooms briefly in grapeseed oil, remove.
Heat soup with noodles, mushrooms and pinch of wakame. Place the noodles in the centre of the plate and ladle the hot soup over. Rest roasted ocean jackets on top of the noodles.
Garnish with spring onion curl, and nori julienne.
Sustainable ethically sourced produce is the start of good cooking. You just can't turn rubbish into a good dish. If I don't know where my food comes from and the impact caused by its production, then I am already a little reluctant to cook with it. With most produce the decisions boils down to whether you are prepared to pay a fair price to producers who are doing the right thing. Generally their product will taste better, so it's win-win for all parties...
Sustainable, ethically sourced seafood however is one area that can easily fall off the radar; kind of, out of sight out of mind. In the past I have had fish on my menus that really were "no go-s" but I had no idea. Access to simple, understandable impartial data on seafood species sustainability can be problematic. If this interests you, Hilary McNevin has written an amazing little guide with 23 species covered , along with recipes , seasonality notes and some good general all round seafood tips, and it's an easy read!: Guide to Fish.
For more information on sustainable fishing check out: www.msc.org/ssd