When renowned Australian chef Neil Perry walked around the Tokyo fish markets over two decades ago, he was stunned by the quality of the produce. Pausing before one particularly exquisite specimen, he asked the vendor how he could import his fish to Australia. The fishmonger looked at Perry incredulously. “This is Mark-San’s fish,” he said. “From Sydney.”
So began Mark Eather’s journey to become Australia’s foremost proponent of sustainable fishing. These days, it’s not just Rockpool who are purchasing Eather’s fish. His client list reads like a who’s who of Australian dining – the likes of Kylie Kwong, Matt Moran, Tetsuya Wakuda, Shannon Bennett, Frank Camorra, Andrew McConnell, David Walsh, Pure South, Brooks, PM24, The Royal Mail, Longrain, Taxi and Paul Wilson’s Circa and Albert Park Hotel all prefer Eather’s produce.
There’s a good reason chefs are scrambling to put Eather’s fish on their menus. Not only do the Tasmanian’s methods adhere to the increasing demand for sustainable fish products, they also result in what he’s certain is the tastiest fish in the country.
It’s what first led Eather to his ethical fishing epiphany. Indeed, it was in 1980, in the New South Wales south coast port of Eden, that Eather was presented with his first genuine piece of sashimi. “That was a life-changing moment in Eden all those years ago,” he recalls. “A Japanese gentleman was kind enough to show me that while we’d been catching Southern Blue-Fin Tuna to go into cans, he was horrified when we saw how we’d been treating the fish. He was good enough to show me how a fish should be treated.”
With his newfound knowledge, Eather began spending serious amounts of time in Japan, not only establishing a new market for high-quality tuna, but learning the art and philosophy of Iki jime. “In essence, Iki jime means to humanely kill, but the technique is so much more than that,” he explains. “The whole ethos is about using a technique where you’re individually and quickly catching fish. Catch it quick, kill it quick and chill it quick.”
The practice involves individually line-catching fish and killing them instantly with a special spike. Unlike fishing practices that use a trawler or an auto-line (a huge length of line with 3000 hooks in the water at any one time), the Iki jime method emphasises a smaller catch. Generally, Eather explains, his lines come out of the water as soon as they’ve had a bite, with one or sometimes two fish attached. “Whereas a huge day for me might be utilising 300 or 400 hooks in 80 drops to the bottom, mass-catch operations quite often use 15,000 baits in a day,” Eather explains. “A fish that’s been caught on a 3000-hook auto-liner, they mightn't land that fish for five or six hours.”
It’s a method that’s not only more humane, but improves the quality of the product. With mass-catch, the stress experienced by the fish releases lactic acid that damages the fish and leaves a strong, pungent aftertaste. “One of the biggest differences is flavour,” says Eather. “If you eat properly treated Iki jime, when you taste it, you’ve got a sweet ocean flavour in your palate. Within seconds, your palate should be totally clean.”
It’s a more difficult, labour intensive and less efficient method of fishing – and that’s entirely the point. According to Eather, certainly not a lone voice on the issue, the availability of cheap fish is destroying fish stocks and the environment in which they live. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that while the global catch for next year will be 160 million tonnes of seafood, less than 0.5 per cent is caught utilising genuinely sustainable methodology.
The only reason the public isn’t outraged, he believes, is that it all happens under water. “The only way they get away with doing what they do is the fact the general public can’t see it,” says Eather. “It’s different to clear-felling virgin rainforest, because the average person would find that abhorrent. But what goes on under our oceans on a daily basis, people don’t see it, but it’s no different.”
And while it might be unpalatable to some, Eather believes the only way we can keep fish on the menu is to eat much less of it. “We have to start consuming less fish and demand it to be of a far better quality,” he urges. “Whenever you’re going down to your local fishmonger and buying $10 flathead, you’re supporting the mass-catch guys. The hurdle is going to be for the consumer to say, ‘Hang on, I shouldn’t be paying $10 for that flathead, I should be paying $25 for that flathead’.”
By serving fish like the rare luxury it is, we can make a genuine cultural shift. Taking influence once again from the Japanese, Eather reckons Australians need to begin rethinking what constitutes a good serve of fish, with 120 or 150 grams being a more realistic serving size. “You can charge $120 for a Wagyu steak dish and a punter won’t bat an eyelid,” he says, while a fish dish even half that price would have diners up in arms. “That’s because we’ve had that philosophy that fish is cheap.”
Indeed, the disparity in price doesn’t represent the investment made by the fisherman, in time, infrastructure and personal risk. “My work environment is the most perilous on the planet,” says Eather sombrely. “When I leave for work in the morning I may not see my family again.” Eather’s not exaggerating. In the last two years, four of his close friends didn’t make it home.
So what can fish lovers do to ensure they’re eating ethically? The answer, says Eather, is simple: “What consumers can do is ask questions,” he says. “Firstly, how was the fish caught? Then ask [about] which boat and fisherman caught the fish. If you can’t get an answer on either of those two questions, it’s highly unlikely it’s been caught sustainably and ethically.”
Admittedly, the state of sustainable fishing isn’t the most upbeat of stories. But even if things seem a little bleak, there are already some small signs of hope that with the right kind of fishing, species might have the chance to bounce back, like the once-critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna. “They’re globally acknowledged for being the best managed fishery in the world,” Eather enthuses. “Every year, I’m seeing more Southern Bluefin Tuna, which is just mind-blowing.”
A large range of Mark Eather’s sustainable fish are available on the menu at Circa and the Albert Park Hotel.