Chefs weigh in on Napthine plan to ban commercial fishing in Port Phillip Bay

Jane Holroyd
Chef and restaurateur Michael Bacash fears he will no longer have access to fresh, local seafood such as snapper if net ...
Chef and restaurateur Michael Bacash fears he will no longer have access to fresh, local seafood such as snapper if net fishing in Port Phillip Bay is banned. Photo: Angela Wylie

To Michael Bacash, the value of a snapper caught in Port Phillip Bay and enjoyed the same day is immeasurable. The chef spent his spare time as a child growing up at Mount Martha with a fishing rod in-hand and has since made sharing his passion for fresh, local seafood his business.

The chef has been running acclaimed seafood restaurant Bacash in South Yarra for 13 years - and before that Toofey's - also renowned for its local seafood, for 12 years.

His longevity in the business has nothing to do with his skills as a chef, says Bacash, but is instead a testament to the quality and freshness of the local seafood he serves such as snapper and calamari. Seafood sourced from Port Phillip Bay can make up 50 per cent of his menu, when availability allows.

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Bacash and other Melbourne chefs including MoVida's Frank Camorra and Cumulus Inc's Oliver Edwards have voiced alarm over the Victorian Coalition government's pledge to ban commercial net fishing in Port Phillip and Corio bays, saying that such a move would mean access to fresh, local seafood would be drastically reduced.

Seafood industry insiders meanwhile say the move could increase the price of some species such as calamari and whiting by 50 to 60 per cent.

On Sunday, Premier Denis Napthine announced the Coalition would set aside $20 million to buy back commercial fishing licences in the bays over a period of four years if it wins this month's state election.

Government spokesman Mark Lee told goodfood.com.au the motivation was "to boost fish stocks for recreational anglers".

"Recreational fishing is a massive economic driver in Victoria through spending in the tourism and retail sectors," he said.  Lee also said discarded nets posed a hazard for non-targeted species, the seabed and "other boaters".

The Coalition argues banning nets from Port Phillip and Corio bays will not have a big impact on the local fishing industry.

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"On average, 4000 tonnes of fin fish are caught commercially in Victorian fisheries per annum," Lee said. "Less than 5 per cent [4.6 per cent] of this is caught via netting in Port Phillip and Corio bays."

But Johnathon Davey, executive director of Seafood Industry Victoria disputes these figures saying it is closer to "8-9 per cent" and that a ban on net fishing in Port Phillip and Corio bays would "result in approximately 75 per cent of the current commercial Port Phillip Bay catch" being unavailable for Victorian consumers".

While the volume of seafood caught in Port Phillip each year (about 400 tonnes) may seem like small fry, some in the industry say the impact will be felt keenly because the species caught in the bays with nets are iconic and highly prized.

The main species caught by commercial fisheries in Port Phillip and Corio in order of value, according to the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation in Canberra are: snapper, king george whiting, southern calamari, Australian salmon, southern garfish and rock flathead.

Barbara Konstas, the CEO of Melbourne's wholesale fish market the Melbourne Seafood Centre predicted the loss of supply of local species would put huge pressure on prices. "If calamari is not available then prices will easily increase by 50 per cent for product bought in from elsewhere," said Konstas. "King george whiting and southern garfish will also increase by 50 to 60 per cent."

About 15 per cent of the fresh Australian seafood that passes through the MSC's halls is from Port Phillip and Corio Bays.

While 70 per cent of the seafood Australians consume is imported, Konstas said a ban on local net fishing would have a huge impact on businesses that specialise in fresh, local seafood.

"When fresh rock flathead, calamari or whiting arrive into this market, the kilogram volumes might not be large, however they are spread over a vast array of buyers," she said.

"This product is sold into Melbourne's major food markets - Queen Victoria, South Melbourne, Prahran, Preston, Footscray, Dandenong, Camberwell - and to restaurant suppliers."

"It will affect top-end restaurants, and the average family who [want] ... local fresh seafood sourced within three hours of Melbourne."

Chef Oliver Edwards from Cumulus Inc says he was shocked by the Coalition's election pledge.

In his spare time Edwards runs a website to help guide Victorian consumers in sustainable seafood choices.

"We've got viable, fantastic and sustainable seafood on our doorstep and it's something we should be immensely proud of."

Edwards views the move as a bid to appease Victoria's 750,000 recreational fishing enthusiasts.

"This has nothing to do with sustainability," says Edwards, who points out the Port Phillip fisheries have been independently assessed as by the Australian Conservation Foundation, let alone given the tick by the government's own Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

He adds it's a strange move at a time when Victorian consumers are increasingly interested in the provenance of their food.

"We get more and more questions about where our seafood comes from. At the moment we can get snapper that has been caught in the early hours [in the bay] and be serving it at Cumulus that night."

Edwards agreed prices would increase with more seafood having to be sourced elsewhere. "We would have to get snapper from South Australia and New Zealand."

But for chefs, it's not just the likelihood of rising costs that is a concern.

Michael Bacash says the difference between fresh fish and product that has been transported across states is huge. "A garfish 24 hours out of the water will leave a red emperor from Queensland ... for dead," he said.

He says he can't understand the Coalition's pledge to fix something he says is not broken and will deny Melburnians a "birthright".

"Unless you catch it yourself you won't be able to access a fantastic commodity... There's all this fish available and if someone is prepared to catch it in an ethical way then why shouldn't you be able to buy it if you're prepared to pay for it?"

"If local seafood was no longer available I would seriously have to wonder whether it was worth my while to run my restaurant the way I run it. We would certainly have to change the focus from fish to something else."