The fishing port at Lakes Entrance is busy. Boats being filled with fuel and supplies. Repairs made to nets and ropes. The air is filled with the mingled aromas of diesel, fish and the salty tang of sea air. Adam Mitchelson is preparing to head out to Bass Strait at dusk. He has fished the lakes and the waters off the East Gippsland coast all his life. Just as his dad Harry did. There have been Mitchelsons fishing here since 1888. Tonight Adam is going out to fish for sardines. "We used to call them pilchards and some of the oldies still do," he says. "But a few years back the industry started calling them 'sardines'. Everyone knows sardines from a tin," says Adam.
Sardines are Sardinops sagax and are also known as bloaters, blue bait and mulies, depending on where in Australia you are fishing for them. They are fully grown at three years, about 15 centimetres to 18 centimetres, but they can live for eight years and grow up to 25 centimetres long. Striated blue on top with a silver belly, they congregate in great shoals and are an important food for sea birds, including penguins, sea mammals and other fish. They are also delicious. Under their fine skin is a dark pink flesh and a cage of very fine bones. Sardine flesh is dense, with a meaty flavour.
There are four defined areas where there are commercial fishing stocks in Australia – one off the south east coast of Australia, one off the coast of South Australia and two off the coast of West Australia. The biggest fishing fleet is in South Australia, where there are 14 registered vessels, 13 in WA, eight in NSW and just a few in Victoria, including the Mitchelsons'. The national catch, at present levels, is considered to be sustainable. Processing facilities for sardines involves removing the head and bones to create butterfly fillets that are packed and sent around the country. A lot of the sardines in fish shops around Australia are from Fremantle and Port Lincoln. The improvement of the processing to create lovely-looking clean and gutted fish fillets has been part of the reason there has been a recent increase in popularity of these delicious little fishies.
"For the past 30 years Australians have been obsessed with delicate, white-fleshed fish," says Adam's father Harry. He has a cheeky grin and a face lined by years at sea. "In the 19th century our ancestors used to fish for mullet in the lakes and Australian salmon off the coast," he says.
In the 1880s the Mitchelsons had a 30-foot wooden boat and the fish they caught were packed in wooden crates and sent to Sale on a steamer and then by train to Melbourne. They would row out to sea and fish along the coast all the way to Marlo some 70 kilometres away.
"During WWII," says Harry, "we were fishing Australian salmon to be sent off for canning for the war effort."
By that stage an old car engine had been mounted on the boat to power it out to sea. Australian salmon is a darker fleshed fish, extremely high in Omega 3. It's delicious when fresh but can develop a stronger flavour when out of the water for several days.
It has never regained its popular status (unlike farmed Atlantic salmon which we eat tonnes of). Harry explains that in the mid 20th century there were substantial changes in refrigeration and insulation. "This meant that more delicate fleshed fish could be fished and sent to the market," he says. "Aussies turned their back on stronger tasting fish and started to like white fish," says Harry, referring to flathead, whiting and snapper. "People also don't like bones," adds Adam. "That saw the price for fish like mullet drop and become a boon for the European and Asian migrants who knew a bargain when they saw it."
Adam's sister Lynda Mitchelson-Twigg shows me an old film of how fishing for sardines was done 60 years ago.
The captain would find a shoal of sardines by looking out for the sea birds diving feverishly into the water. He would shoot the net by letting it slowly out as he sailed a rough O shape around the fish. With floats on top and weights at the bottom, ropes were hauled by hand to create a bag around and under the fish. When the fish were close to the surface, the fisherman scooped the sardines up onto the deck.
"That is basically what we do today," says Adam. "Except we use sonar, the nets are hauled in by motors and we suck the fish up directly from the nets using this," he explains patting a big black hose that looks wide enough to suck up a football. The live fish are sent to slurry tanks where they are rendered senseless by the ice, perish in the cold, then develop rigor mortis.
"For every hour a fish is out of water and not on ice," explains Harry, "you lose a day of shelf life. Quality is about getting the fish out of the water and into the slurry as fast as possible. We can do it these days in a matter of seconds."
Back on shore, the fish are sorted and some sent to the individual quick freezing (IQF) machine and packed for the market. Many fresh sardines are packed in polystyrene boxes and trucked to Sydney and Melbourne markets the following day.
When asked what is the best way to enjoy sardines, Harry says, "dust cleaned sardines in flour, a little salt then fry them in a hot pan with plenty of bubbling butter."
Other recipes ideas come up in the family conversation. "Cook them in a very hot oven with a little olive oil and lemon juice," is one.
Sardine pâté on crumpets at Sardine in Paynesville. Photo: supplied
Mark Briggs, former head chef from Vue de Monde in Melbourne, is now a regular customer of Michelson's sardines. He cooks a more casual style of cuisine in the Gippsland lakes town of Paynesville. He and his partner Victoria Hollingsworth have called their waterside restaurant Sardine Bar and Eatery after their love of the delicious little fish. Michelson's sardines feature on the menu. "They are really great quality," says Briggs. He first brines the sardines, hot smokes them then mashes them down into a pâté – a more delicate and fresher tasting version of the classic English anchovy condiment Gentlemen's Relish.
Back on the boat Adam prepares to head out through ''The Entrance'' to Bass Strait.
"The only trouble with sardines is that they're a wild catch," says Adam. "We can't round them up like sheep. We have to go out and find them. That limits our ability to land them into the markets all the time," he explains.
Mitchelson's Sardines are available in Melbourne and Sydney fish shops and sold as Lakes Entrance Sardines. They are sold filleted in Off The Boat fish shop, Bullock Island, Lakes Entrance and in Melbourne farmers' markets from Wild Catch.