Here's the catch: Bass Strait To Plate director Amy Elleway, with a dish created from her range of snap-frozen fish fillets.
Here's the catch: Bass Strait To Plate director Amy Elleway, with a dish created from her range of snap-frozen fish fillets. Photo: Graham Tidy

There's been a lot of talk about our seafood in recent weeks. Where does it come from? Is the name on the label accurate? How was it fished? Celebrity chefs including Frank Camorra and Peter Gilmore have thrown their weight behind the Label My Fish campaign organised by Greenpeace and the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Campaigners say weak Australian laws means imported fish is often sold under labels, such as "barramundi" or "flathead", that don't tell the whole story about what species of fish it is or where it really comes from. 

Gourmet farmer Matthew Evans has made food labelling the subject of a three-part documentary on SBS, What's the Catch?, and the matter is also being considered by a Senate inquiry on the hill. Sustainable fishing, proper labelling and ethical sourcing are coming to the forefront of our collective consciousness once more. But one Canberra woman believes frozen is the way of the future.

Amy Elleway was raised in a fishing family in coastal Victoria - she says her parents helped pioneer commercial squid fishing in Australia. She came to Canberra to work as a public servant, and now she's drawn on her knowledge of the family trade to set up Bass Strait to Plate, which sells meal-sized packages of snap-frozen fish from Australian waters. Elleway says the fish is sustainable because it comes from boats that are known to her company and that fish within stock limits. The fillets are sold in outlets such as Choku Bai Jo, the Ainslie and Hackett IGAs, and the Griffith butcher's. 

"The concept has been under development for probably about 18 months, and the first batch of product arrived in Canberra ... I think in March this year," she says. She says a number of issues led to her starting Bass Strait to Plate. At first, she just wanted fish that she could trust in Canberra. And then people around her wanted in on the action. Elleway says she was in a good position to talk to others about problems with sustainable fish. "Because  of growing up in the seafood industry and because I worked as an international trade lawyer for government, and having an understanding of quarantine issues and what Australia does in relation to seafood product coming into Australia ... Because of both those perspectives I had a very informed understanding," she says. "It became apparent to me that a whole lot of people weren't informed, and as soon as they had some knowledge they responded with, 'Well, I would make a different choice if I had known that'."

And there are plenty of choices to make and too little information. The Australian Marine Conservation Society produces a guide to sustainable seafood, and says few fisheries are certified as sustainable throughout the world and "the uncomfortable truth is that fishing is taking a huge toll on our oceans". In the wild, fish can be caught on the line or on trawlers that scoop up "bycatch". or fish that aren't able to be sold and aren't wanted. Aquaculture is one way of keeping stocks high, but poor fish-farming practices can lead to pollution or destruction of other habitats. The society says farmed carnivorous fish such as Atlantic salmon often have to be fed other fish that must then be caught in the wild, so it can take 1.8kg of wild fish to produce 1kg of farmed Atlantic salmon. But it's difficult to know if the fish you buy comes from a fishery that has best practice, or one that's not so constrained.

Bass Strait to Plate does use trawler-caught fish, but Elleway says it's from a "highly managed fishery with constant stock monitoring". And bycatch, she says, has been hugely reduced in recent years because of better technology such as radar imaging. "It's just problematic in terms of scooping up low-value fish that we don't want to eat," she says. She knows more than most what a precious resource seafood is, and is working to reduce any wastage and find good uses for bycatch. "We need to get better at utilising the resource, and that's one of the reasons we are working on developing fish fertiliser and ... fish stock [from the bycatch] so that the whole of the resource is being used."

Elleway says her fish - blue-eyed dory, trevalla and flathead - come from highly regulated Australian fisheries and have been chosen specifically because they are not on any environmental watch list and are good cooking fish. "That's a very deliberate choice. A lot of feedback that I got from potential consumers was, 'I really want to eat more fish, but I just don't know about fish, I'm not informed about fish, and I walk into a fish shop and I just don't know which is good fish and what I should get'." she says. "Those three fish types are chosen because they are very good fish - they are not at all fishy and they are firm, white-fleshed fish, they are not on anyone's watch list for being unsustainably managed or caught."

Using her family's fish-processing facilities in Portland, Victoria, the fish are filleted and prepared at the dockside, she says, and then snap-frozen within a few hours to preserve freshness. They're shipped to Canberra and can be defrosted and cooked as fresh fish. She acknowledges that freezing fish doesn't immediately sound like the best way to keep it. "Fish does have a very delicate flesh, and that's why it's so critical that it's snap-frozen immediately so it hasn't even begun the degradation process," she says.  

The fish is catching on - recently, Stand By Me cafe in Lyons started using some of Elleway's fish in lunch specials, and she says they've proved very popular. She's also started supplying to some delis interstate.

Elleway doesn't claim to have the answers, but says she's trying to be part of the solution. It's down to consumer pressure to do the rest. 

The Label My Fish campaign is at labelmyfish.com. Bass Strait to Plate is at bassstraittoplate.com.au