ENVIRONMENT: Changing tastes and preconceptions

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WANDERING through a local fish market the other day provided a couple of surprises. There were some very fresh-looking blackfish (luderick) on offer at a reasonable $4.99 per kilo. Whole blackfish from retail outlets are generally cheap as they need a bit of care in preparation to get the best out of them, they need to be filleted and skinned. No great shock there. But right below them were much smaller, not so attractive black trevally (black spinefoot) at $16.99 per kilo. Now that’s surprising to an old rock fisherman because the black trevally has generally been regarded as a pest species, mainly because they’re particularly adept at removing blackfish baits. As a bonus, they have venomous dorsal and anal spines, which cause extremely painful puncture wounds. Hence their other popular name ”happy moments”.

Black trevally for sale at $16.00 per kilo.

Having just come to grips with the $12 per kilo price difference, the next surprise was close by. Eastern wirrah at $19.99 per kilo. Now just a minute. A good size black trevally can yield a reasonable fillet which might be as good as a blackfish in flavour, but wirrah? Groper and drummer fishers traditionally despised them and referred to them as “boots” or “old boots”. The old story on cooking a wirrah was: “boil in a pot with a piece of blue metal for two hours, throw away the fish and eat the blue metal.”

Wirrah, commonly referred to as "boot", for sale $19.99 per kilo.

So, what’s going on? Possibly a couple of things. One might be that because traditionally there were plenty of easy to catch better sized species on offer, the black trevally and the wirrah never got a fair go. The trevally's handling difficulties and the wirrah’s almost non-existent fighting capabilities didn’t help their images.

Second might be related to migration. Black trevally are quite prized in some south sea island communities and wirrah are a colourful member of the cod family, related to assorted other tropical cods and coral trout, particular favourites in Asian countries. So, market demand might have created a spot and a premium price for them.

Third is that as traditional market favourites (snapper, flathead etc) declined in numbers and rose in price, commercial fishers and fish marketers set about creating a market for species that weren’t much eaten in the past. Couple that with a myriad of information on preparation and cooking, and more adventurous buying by the public, and “pest” species become desirable.

Fourth, the importance of good handling practices is now acknowledged by both professionals and amateurs. Ice, ice slurries, vacuum sealing, fast and humane dispatching are now far more the norm. Over the last 50 years or so that’s seen what were once considered second rate fish become well accepted, yellowtail kingfish, silver trevally, bonito, cooked or raw.

There’s a risk in this trend for anglers of course. It means that species such as queenfish suddenly become valuable targets as people realise that with care and proper preparation, they’re really good to eat. So more will be caught commercially, leaving less for us to chase.

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