Last chance: Bay fish may soon be off Melbourne menus

Change in the wind: A fisherman at work in Port Phillip Bay.
Change in the wind: A fisherman at work in Port Phillip Bay. Photo: Richard Cornish

Mum has been a Mornington Peninsula local for over half a century. She loves local fish. She used to fish but those years are behind her, as 80 is her next big birthday.

There's a little restaurant in Sorrento called Cakes and Ale that serves some of the best fish in Victoria. They should be. The fish are caught in the southern end of the bay down near Drysdale in the wee hours of the morning and sent over on the Queenscliff ferry later that day to be served for lunch and dinner. Garfish, king george whiting, snapper and whitebait.

We order a dish of deep-fried whitebait, served with wonderfully bitter greens. Mum says, "This is proper food. Delicious and so good for you." 

Whole Bay-caught snapper at Cakes and Ale.
Whole Bay-caught snapper at Cakes and Ale. Photo: Richard Cornish

The Port Phillip commercial fishery where our meal was caught, however, is being shut down. Legislation to buy back some 43 commercial fishing licences in Port Phillip Bay was introduced into the Victorian Parliament late last month. If passed, a century-and-a-half-old industry will end and Melburnians will no longer be able to buy fresh, local seafood caught on their bay and shipped to their shops and restaurants in a matter of hours. 

"Phasing out commercial net fishing in Port Phillip Bay is the flagship commitment of our Target One Million plan," said Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford. "It will get more people fishing, more often, right here on Melbourne's doorstep. Removing netting from Port Phillip Bay will help attract more visitors to this prime fishing destination, boosting local economies and supporting local businesses."

Prior to the last state election, both Liberal and Labor promised to end commercial netting in the bay to appeal to the 720,000 recreational fishers in Victoria.

Will king george whiting  become the new crayfish?
Will king george whiting become the new crayfish? Photo: William Meppem

The fishers affected are people like Mick White. Based in Drysdale, he has been fishing the southern end of the bay for 20 years. The technology he uses to fish the shallow waters is seine netting. It's an ancient technique, aided by modern technology.
A net with floats on the top and weights on the bottom is "shot" to form a curve in the water and is dragged back towards the beach. Fishers stand waist-deep in water and hand-sort the fish into boxes, and throw back live non-targeted species and undersized fish. This is the method of fishing that is recommended to communities in developing nations to fish sustainably. 

Professional fishermen have felt the brunt of local opposition from people who claim they are overfishing the bay, particularly Corio Bay near Geelong. Recreational fishing pressure group Friends of Corio Bay Action Group have long been pushing for a ban on the local professional fishermen. This Geelong-based coalition has spent the past half-decade documenting and publicising commercial fishers' transgressions, such as one being charged with 35 offences, including under-reporting catches, supplying false documents and using an additional long line. 

The bay fishers have an unlikely champion, with Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber publicly supporting them. "If Greenpeace says it's sustainable, then it is good enough for me," he said in an interview with ABC Radio National. "I am a person who likes my fish and I like Australian fish. I don't want it flown in from Argentina."


The law has Melbourne chefs railing against the bill. Seafood specialist Michael Bacash, from his eponymous South Yarra restaurant, says, "This will dramatically reduce the quality of the fish we serve in the restaurant. Fish  deteriorates from the moment it is caught. In Melbourne, we are unique in the way we get seafood that is so incredibly fresh because the fishery is so close," he said.  

"Imagine telling a winemaker that he had to get rid of his best wine. That is what is happening here in Victoria. It is right to regulate this industry but not destroy it. I will no longer be able to sell some of the best seafood products in the world."

His views are supported by the likes of chefs Frank Camorra and Oliver Edwards. Edwards said in Good Food last year, "This has nothing to do with sustainability."

Edwards pointed out that the Port Phillip fisheries have been independently assessed as by the Australian Conservation Foundation and given the tick by the government's own Department of Environment and Primary Industries. 

"Admittedly fishing in the bay needs a few tweaks," Andrew McLaughlin, chairman of seafood distributor Melbourne Seafood Centre, says. "But banning netting altogether is going to cost about 150 to 200 jobs in and around Geelong."

"The unintended consequence of this ban is that we're going to see a doubling in the price of local seafood and pressure being put on other Victorian fisheries, such as Corner Inlet [near Wilson's Promontory]."  

Commercial fishers harvest 650 tonnes of seafood from the bay each year. Four hundred and fifty tonnes of this is lesser-loved species such as tommy rough, mullet and silver trevally, species that are in demand with lower-income shoppers, including migrants from Asian and Africa. Some in the industry claim that fish such as  king george whiting will become the new crayfish, with only the rich being able to afford it.

McLaughlin says the new law does allow a few commercial fishers to use lines with hooks, but that they will be targeting snapper and king george whiting. "Which is ironic," he says, "as these are the fish that recreational fishers most want." 

Back in Sorrento, we finish the whitebait caught off the shore at St Leonards. These tiny little fish can only be caught by net. Mum and I savour the fresh flavour.

"When I first came to the Peninsula there were little fishermen dotted around the bays. I've seen a lot of change in my life down here," she says.

The snapper arrives. It is covered in vegetables from the restaurant's garden. We eat the snapper, cleaning the flesh from the bones. Sweet, gelatinous and delicious. If the law is passed, the ban starts next April. Perhaps this has been one of the last such meals we will get to eat together.