With Easter less than a fortnight away, Australia's seafood industry is gearing up for a bumper season. The message from fishmongers is loud and clear: order early to avoid disappointment.
"Good prawns are going to be in very short supply," says Costa Nemitsas, the Botany-based general manager of Steve Costi and Martin's Seafoods.
Heavy rains caused by La Nina have resulted in juvenile prawns washed out of estuaries and into the sea to be eaten by fish. Normally, they grow to a survivable size before heading to deeper water.
This means Australia's wild prawn harvest has halved and the price for eastern kings may skyrocket to about $60 a kilogram.
"We're buying prawns from the Clarence River and Coffs Harbour, trucking them in overnight to be cooked fresh, and getting them on the shelves that day," says Nemitsas. "We're also driving to Hawkesbury daily for super sweet little school prawns."
If wild-caught Australian prawns prove too expensive or too difficult to find this Easter, pundits recommend consumers try farmed tiger prawns from the Gold Coast instead. Cooked in salted water, farmed tigers are plump, firm and sweet with a striking red shell that peels easily.
Meanwhile, seafood industry consultant John Susman says the Australian seafood industry's export misfortunes continue to be a windfall for domestic consumers.
"With China still not taking our superb rock lobsters they continue to be great value," he says. "But don't expect the rock bottom prices we saw at Christmas."
Susman also recommends southern bluefin tuna for the Good Friday table. The revival of the Mediterranean northern bluefin tuna fishery means the Japanese have turned their attention to the beautifully marbled fish sourced off Spain. Demand for Australian tuna has fallen flat.
"Southern bluefin tuna is a full-flavoured fish with good fat, especially around the belly," says Susman, adding that the problem with tuna in domestic Australian kitchens is the lack of education on how to cook it. The seafood expert says to bring the fish to room temperature, sear both sides, then rest, slice, and serve. "Don't be afraid of the raw interior of tuna cooked this way."
Concerning the all-important oyster, bivalve aficionados will be pleased to hear that Sydney rocks are fattening up perfectly for the long weekend.
"It's a joy to see the oysters looking so good," says Shane Buckley from Wapengo Lake Organic Oysters. Buckley's lease is north of Tathra on the NSW South Coast and he describes the past 12 months as the perfect storm.
"First there was the drought, then the fires which affected water quality in many oyster growing estuaries. Then COVID decimated demand. We were having a good summer, however big rains closed us down and caused the oysters to spawn."
Buckley says that recent stable weather and good water quality has led to oysters gaining weight and quality across the east coast. "This is going to be a very good Easter for Sydney rock oysters."
Look out for older, bigger, and meatier oyster stock backlogged due to COVID-19, with some oysters hitting the three to four-year mark.
Back at his Botany headquarters, Nemitsas watches a catch of dusky flathead caught off Ballina being unloaded.
"This is the king of NSW flathead and one of the best eating fish," he says. "We have amazing, sustainable fisheries on the east coast, with great fish such as bonito and mulloway caught just offshore."
When asked what he is doing for Easter, Nemitsas smiles and replies. "I am Greek and Easter for us is still a while away [May 2 on the Greek Orthodox calendar]. But I'm going to fire up the barbie for pallidus octopus coming in from Mallacoota in East Gippsland, Victoria."
He says the 400 gram octopus are sustainably pot-caught and ready for the barbecue. "They're easy to grill and don't need seasoning, just olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. They're bloody awesome."
This story was originally published March 19. Extreme weather conditions and NSW floods may further affect seafood supply.