The 40-year-old fishing boat feeding a town in regional Victoria

Apollo Bay Fishermen's Co-op fisher Russell "Frosty" Frost and his lesser-loved catch on the Tambo Bay.
Apollo Bay Fishermen's Co-op fisher Russell "Frosty" Frost and his lesser-loved catch on the Tambo Bay. Photo: Richard Cornish

Professional fishers in the Western Victorian fishing town of Apollo Bay have purchased a boat dedicated to catching fish just to feed locals.

The 15-member strong Apollo Bay Fishermen's Co-op has invested nearly $500,000 in a small, 40-year-old fishing boat to fish along the coast every few days and provide the town with fresh seafood.

"Many people in fishing towns around Australia see their fish sent off to the markets or processors in the big cities," says Markus Nolle, former rock lobster fisherman and director of Apollo Bay Fishermen's Co-op.

Flounder, tiger flathead, latchet and red mullet caught for Apollo Bay locals by Russell Frost.
Flounder, tiger flathead, latchet and red mullet caught for Apollo Bay locals by Russell Frost. Photo: Richard Cornish

"The co-op has been running since 1948 and it's part of our responsibility to the people of Apollo Bay to let them share the catch."

In August, the co-op purchased the Tambo Bay, which spent its early years working the waters off Gippsland as a purse seine fishing boat.

The Tambo Bay has since been modified to fish waters just off the rugged coast of Western Victoria. Her captain is Russell "Frosty" Frost, who retired from lobster fishing several years ago. The call of the sea was too strong for Frost and when approached by fellow members of the co-op, he agreed to take on the role of skipper.

"It is 52 feet in the old language, a small boat and very economical to run," says Frost. "We don't need to get massive catches to pay to run her."

When the weather is good, Frost and a deckhand leave the harbour before dawn and trawl for an hour at a time. This allows fish caught in nets to be hauled aboard the deck uninjured.

Bycatch is back in the water within seconds and the rest of the fish are out of the nets and onto ice within minutes. They're packed in hollow plastic bins that can only handle one or two layers of fish, avoiding damage through crushing or jostling. "We don't know what fish we are going to get each day," says Frost.

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Recent catch has been a mix of well-known species such as flathead, snapper, King George whiting and gummy shark, and what are referred to locally as "delicious but lesser loved fish". These include flounder, gurnard, boar fish, leatherjackets and red mullet.

"It's a light touch," says Frost. "It's quick and it's gentle on the environment. There is a lot of ocean out there and we're the only inshore trawler in the area."

Locals on shore find out what the Tambo Bay has landed via an online service called The Local Catch Club.

"Members are sent an email when the boat is back," says Apollo Bay resident Liz Waters, who is building a Local Catch Club website with local designers and artists. "They can place orders and if there is a particular fish that takes their fancy, they can have that put aside."

About 200 to 300 kilograms of fish are brought in every few days. The catch is processed in the Apollo Bay Fishermen's Co-operative facility and sold in a tiny store overlooking the harbour.

What is not sold in town is sold at Gem Pier Seafood in Williamstown. The co-op also sells fish and chips, allowing seafood lovers to sample battered boar fish and gurnard just a few hours after being caught. In good weather, about 80 per cent of seafood sold at the fish and chippery is local catch, with oysters and prawns from outside Apollo Bay largely contributing to the remainder of sales.

Within two weeks the wet fish shop will move to a new store in the middle of town called Co-Op on Pascoe, leaving the chippery by the water until the co-op site is redeveloped in mid-2022.

"We are doing this to ensure the future of the co-op," says Nolle. "The average age of a skipper is 60. The future of the co-op is predicated on the recruitment of new people. We have the boat, the processing and the shop, and soon we will have a restaurant. We can give young people opportunities to learn the seafood business."

Nolle says the barriers to enter into the fishing industry are enormous for young people, and as a result they are finding other jobs elsewhere. He acknowledges that the Chinese ban on importation of rock lobster has floored the local lobster fishers.

"The [lobster retail] price is $80 per kilogram and that is just – just – keeping them afloat," he says.

"So we diversify. In Apollo Bay we can offer young people training and employment across the full spectrum of the seafood business. Australia imports 70 per cent of its seafood while there are fish just offshore dying of old age. We need to invest in our seafood industry."