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A spike in demand

Chefs are lining up to land their share of Mark Eather's catch, writes John Newton.

David Chang of Momofuku restaurant thinks fisherman Mark Eather is a ''straight shooter''. Chang's head chef, Ben Greeno, says Eather's product is ''the best fish I've seen in my career. I don't know whether it's the waters or the way he fishes. It's fantastic''.

The Tasmania-based Eather has boats fishing around Australia. ''From a hundred miles north of Cairns around to Albany,'' he says.

Some of Australia's finest chefs use his catch, including Sean Moran (Sean's Panaroma), Chui Lee Luk (Claude's), Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde, Melbourne), Kylie Kwong (Billy Kwong), Chase Kojima (Sokyo) and Neil Perry (Rockpool group).

It's not only the seafood quality but how it's caught that attracts them. Eather uses the Japanese ike jime method of killing fish, inserting a spike directly into the brain causing immediate brain death. It is said to be more humane and results in less-stressed, better-tasting fish.

Born to the fishing industry, Eather was 14 when he came into port after fishing off Eden, on the south coast of NSW, with ''southern bluefin tuna piled to the gunwales''.

''We were getting 50ยข a kilogram from the cannery,'' he recalls. ''As we pulled alongside [the dock] I saw this little Japanese fellow on the jetty, shaking his head.

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''I got the feeling I had to talk to him. I jumped on to the jetty and said, 'Excuse me, sir, do you speak English?' He spoke broken English, his name was Mr Masuko and he said, 'What do you do to this fish? This fish is a god in my country'. I invited him for dinner and he ended up staying three days.

''He enlightened me as to what true fish quality was and taught me the ike jime process.''

In the late 1980s Masuko, who worked for a major wholesaler in Tokyo's Tsukiji market, invited Eather to Japan to work on the boats and learn the Japanese way of doing things ''at the coalface - how it's best done and how it's marketed at Tsukiji''. While there, Eather also learnt to grade tuna.

He returned to Australia and began building a business, catching a wide variety of fish including snapper, coral trout, Spanish mackerel, tuna, blue eye, bass groper and striped trumpeter.

If there's one fish he loves above all others, it's striped trumpeter. ''I catch it in Tasmania,'' he says. ''A lot of people, including the Japanese, reckon it's the best fin fish in the world when I catch it my way.''

Eather catches fish on a line that has no more than five hooks, whereas most fishing boats use a long line with up to 2000 hooks or massive purse seine nets.

''To treat and handle the product for ike jime you're going to reduce your catch,'' he says. ''The normal fishing boats will get around 10 tonnes in the time you'd be flat out treating a tonne in true ike jime manner. You can somewhat overcome that with manpower but it becomes more costly still. So to catch less, you must earn more.'' Consequently, he exported most of the fish to Japan, where they were happy to pay a premium.

In 1992, a phone call changed all that. ''The voice said, 'It's Neil Perry here'. I had no idea who he was,'' Eather says. ''He told me he was a Sydney restaurateur and he'd been in the Tsukiji market looking at fish and said, 'Gee, I'd love to get snapper like that' and the auctioneer said, 'But this is from Mark-san' and he looked at the label and it said Mark Eather Botany, my export factory.

''Neil came in and talked to me while I was packing tuna and, from that first meeting, I listened to what he had to say and I thought, 'This bloke is serious'. He said, 'Not only do I want to give my diners the best, I want my staff to know about it as well. I want you to come and talk to my staff'. I did and we're great friends to this day.''

The word spread.

Eather believes what he catches and sells is not ''just fish''.

''That mentality,'' he says, ''is what's keeping the mass-catch people in our business - the raping and pillaging of our ocean. I can buy flathead down the road for 10 bucks a kilogram because it's 'just fish'.'' He originally began exporting because no one in Australia was willing to pay for fish caught his way. ''They wanted a better product but they weren't willing to pay for it.''

And don't get him started on demersal trawling, a method of fishing that drags a net along the seabed, catching fish in its way.

''There's a big, gorgeous mountain at the back of Hobart, Mount Wellington,'' Eather says. ''If someone was to put a big steel rope up the face of that mountain from one end to the other and put a team of bulldozers at the bottom and drag it down, how far would they get? They'd be shot on sight before they'd got a metre down. That's what happens [to the ocean floor] with board trawling. Only worse.

''They throw a net over the top to make sure all the flora and fauna gets smashed up. Then they take a portion of what they've 'dragged down the mountain', turn it into 'woodchips' and sell it cheap. That's a brutal analogy but it's a fact. I'm not trying to put the trawler fishermen out of business. They've got families to feed. I'm just trying to change the way they fish. For 20 years I've advocated demersal trawling should be abolished.''

It seems some operators agree.

Five Nelson Bay trawler operators (Herald, January 16) have declared their practice environmentally damaging and want the federal government to buy them out.

One issue conservationists and people such as Eather have with trawling is that it's indiscriminate and a lot of untargeted fish, called bycatch, are caught. Many are thrown back in the ocean dead. ''Of course I get bycatch but it goes back live,'' Eather says.

''I throw back undersize fish, stressed fish or fish in poor condition. My technique is totally selective and my footprint is zero.

''People have to be made to realise the true cost of 'cheap fish' to the planet.''

He has a good word to say about fishery management.

''The southern bluefin tuna fishery is the best managed fishery in the world - there are quotas and the quotas are matched to science. Now, every year, I see more and more southern bluefin.''

It's been officially recognised. In October, the six-nation Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna agreed to a total quota rise of one-third, from 9449 tonnes to 12,449 tonnes, although the fish remains on the critically endangered list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

It's a reminder that wild-caught fish are a scarce resource and people such as Eather potentially put their lives in danger when they throw in a line. ''Every time I or any other fisherman goes to sea and says goodbye to our family, there's a chance we won't see them again,'' he says. ''It's one of the most dangerous occupations.''

Which is something to think about when looking at the price of a line-caught ike jime fish.

Pricier catch has quality to match

GIVEN the bespoke style of Mark Eather's catch, it is more expensive than most others.

Wayne Hulme from seafood provedore Joto, which handles Eather's fish in Sydney, says: "You'd expect to pay 40 per cent more for Mark's fish. For example, on a good day at Sydney Fish Market, you'll get snapper for $14.90 a kilogram. You'd never pay less than $19.90 for Mark's snapper.

"If you can find it, striped trumpeter from New Zealand, trawler caught and filleted, is about $30 a kilogram, equivalent to $20 for a whole fish. Mark's striped trumpeter for a whole fish is around $32.90 a kilogram.

"The way I look at it is if you're prepared to pay $80 a kilogram for wagyu [beef], the extra for a fish of this quality is worth it."