How changing attitudes could help sardine fishers scale up and angle for dinner plates

David Gray wants his fish on dinner plates.

The Esperance commercial angler has spent years catching and selling sardines nationwide for bait.

But a growing interest in locally sourced seafood has created new opportunities.

He now has the human consumption market in his sights.

“I’ve always dreamed of doing it,” Mr Gray said.

“There’s a real shift towards people that want to know where their food came from and that it’s healthy.

“That’s going to work in our favour into the future.”

Shift in attitudes

The majority of Australia’s edible seafood is imported, predominantly from Asia.

But Phil Clark, co-owner of WA company Fins Seafood, said supply headaches stemming from the COVID pandemic had “put the magnifying glass” on where the country sourced its fish.

“All industries had a lot of supply chain issues — seafood was really affected by that,” he said.

“You’re bringing in imported goods, at an added cost through freight. It brought that gap between local and imported [seafood] a little closer.

“A lot of companies are trying to future-proof themselves. Aligning yourself with local produce … is potentially more beneficial than leaning on imported products.”

Esperance fisherman David Gray’s son Charlie with a catch of sardines.(Supplied: David Gray)

But he said the shift could also be attributed to the “socially responsible” mindset of consumers, highlighting sardines – known for their high omega-3 content and low carbon footprint – as an example.

“One of the things about sardines is, legitimately, they are one of the most super of all super foods,” Mr Clark said.

“People are looking for healthier fish combined with being more conscious of [their] environmental carbon footprint.”

By law, seafood sold at Australian supermarkets or fish shops needs to be labelled with the country from which it originated.

But, apart from the Northern Territory, no state or territory legislates for dining venues to adopt country of origin labelling.

The point has proved divisive among the commercial fishing and hospitality sectors.

Mr Clark said he could understand both sides of the argument.

“The costs associated with actually policing it are really hard,” he said.

“But hopefully it’s something we do work towards.”

Confidence in local food production

Mr Gray said the green light to realise his expansion dream came after his business was awarded almost $150,000 through a state government grant in 2019.

A man holds a box in one hand and a packet of fish in the other
Entering the human consumption market has been a slow process but David Gray thinks it will pay off.

But COVID made progress difficult.

“Just getting anything done was slow, because everybody else had staff shortages,” he said.

“But we ended up getting everything done and we’re ready for operation.”

His business is finally set up for processing.

Fillets of silver flounder are currently being packaged and supplied to local retailers and wholesalers.

He hopes to be doing something similar with sardines as soon as possible.

“I think local food production’s the way to go,” Mr Gray said.

“Food security is a big issue, and I think any local food production is going to go well.”

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