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Sea-food and eat it

Posted on : 05 February 2019

Aquaculture. The competition has been going for nearly twenty years – but the practice is as old as they come. With farmed seafood now providing 50% of all seafood consumed worldwide, we couldn’t do without it – especially at Christmas time.

Leaders know how to seize the moment, and when the Sydney Royal Easter Show moved to Sydney Olympic Park two decades ago, Lyndey Milan made the most of the change. The TV chef and food-media expert urged fellow Councillors of the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW (RAS) to join in the food revolution and use the move to freshly promote agriculture. As founding chair of the Fine Food Committee, Lyndey pushed for the establishment of the Fine Food Show, and in 2001, strategically introduced Aquaculture into the competition. At the time, the industry was divided, but Lyndey was determined no one would leave the first meeting of stakeholders until a way forward was found.

Competition started conservatively with just two classes: one for cooked farmed prawns, and the other for oysters. Entries were few, largely because most growers weren’t accustomed to the idea of exhibiting. Interestingly, the medallists in both classes were. Before prawn farming, the Herbst family, who run Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture, had a background in sugarcane, and for several generations have been ringmasters at the Beenleigh Show. Gary Rodely of Tathra Oysters was a Riverina boy, and always aware of country shows.

“We had friends in Leeton with a winery,” says Gary, “and I always remember what a great event it was in the town when they won a gold medal at Sydney Royal. What a life-changing moment that was for them and their little winery. It gave them credibility. So I always had that instilled in me that this was the ultimate benchmark of quality.”

Tathra Oysters and Gold Coast Tiger Prawns have been consistent medallists ever since, but neither has got complacent. That first year, having put his very best oysters forward, Gary scored two silvers and a bronze. He wasn’t satisfied.

“Ten of the finest judges were telling us there’s room to go. More was possible. That lit a fire in us. Even though we’d been oyster farming for many years at that stage, it made us go back to the drawing board, to go, can we look at any of the things we’re doing here and come up with a better product?”

Gary worked on the shape of the oyster and the condition. Silver and bronze turned into consistent gold – and the inaugural President’s Medal. Improvements made to exhibition produce also helped raise the quality of Gary’s commercial stock and his business continues to grow.

It’s a classic example of the RAS mandate in action. By encouraging innovation and excellence through competition, overall standards are raised.

Gradually, more classes have been added to the aquaculture competition, often in response to new products developed regionally. This year Pialligo Estate were the big winners, for the first time taking out Champion Aquaculture Product with their cold smoked Atlantic salmon.

Smoked and preserved fish were actually first exhibited at the 1870 Show and lasted as a class for several decades. The 1870s was something of a go-ahead time for aquaculture. Fingerlings were raised for the stocking of rivers and streams; and, in the Georges River, the first commercial oyster farm started. RAS Vice President, Thomas Holt, was behind the ambitious scheme, employing 200 labourers to dig fattening pits in Gwawley Bay. He implemented a French method of growing, but it was a failure, and mud eventually silted the oysters over. Still a firm believer in the potential of a world-class oyster industry in New South Wales, Holt agitated for, then headed up, a Royal Commission into the fishery. On its recommendation, oyster leases were introduced in 1880.

But aquaculture has a much longer history than this in Australia, as we now know, thanks to researchers and writers like Bruce Pascoe. In his award-winning book, Dark Emu, he explores traditional Indigenous agricultural practices and notes the complex system of fish traps at Brewarrina as an example of a highly sophisticated, managed fishery. These date back at least 40,000 years. Fish ponds and eel smokehouses at Lake Condah in Victoria could well have supported a sedentary population of 10,000 people. Dated at around 8,000 years old, this is thought to be the oldest example of intensive aquaculture in the world.

Just as sustainability was central to Indigenous systems, it is core to modern practice today. Wild caught seafood can no longer supply the majority of our needs, so environmentally sound aquaculture ventures are vital to ensure food security into the future. At times of peak demand, we already rely heavily on the industry to supply us. Six months before we sit down to tables laden with Christmas feasts, prawn farmers are busy in hatcheries to stock their ponds. And three or four years before, oyster growers gather spat to begin their canny work with the tides.

While we don’t necessarily all get to taste the premium product Sydney Royal judges savour, the seafood that we do enjoy on December 25th is likely to be all the better for their discerning palates.

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