UNCOMPROMISING New York chef David Chang believes fisherman Mark Eather is a ''straight shooter''.
Head chef Ben Greeno, of Momofuku, Chang's new Sydney restaurant, goes further, saying 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''.
Tasmanian-based Eather has boats fishing around Australia - ''from a hundred miles north of Cairns around to Albany'', he says.
Eather supplies about 20 of the country's leading restaurants, including Vue de Monde, Rockpool and Pure South in Melbourne, and in Sydney Neil Perry's stable as well as Kylie Kwong's Billy Kwong.
It's not only the quality but the techniques used to catch the seafood that attract chefs. Eather prefers the ike jime Japanese method of killing fish, which involves inserting a spike directly into the fish's brain, causing immediate death. It is said to be more humane and to result in 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 New South Wales, with ''southern bluefin tuna piled to the gunwales''.
''We were getting 50¢ a kilogram from the cannery. As we pulled alongside [the dock], I saw this little Japanese fellow on the jetty shaking his head,'' he says.
''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 wholesaler in Tokyo's Tsukiji market, invited Eather to Japan to work on the boats and learn the Japanese way, ''at the coal face - how it's best done and how it's marketed at Tsukiji''.
Eather returned to Australia and began building a business, catching a wide variety of fish: 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,'' Eather 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 with no more than five hooks. Most fishing boats use a long line with up to 2000 hooks, or 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 would 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 fish to Japan, where they were happy to pay the 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 sells is not ''just fish''.
''That mentality is what's keeping the mass-catch people in our business - the raping and pillaging of our ocean,'' he says. ''I can buy flathead down the road for 10 bucks a kilogram because it's 'just fish'.''
And don't get him started on demersal trawling, a method of fishing that drags a net along the bottom of the ocean, catching any 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 that demersal trawling should be abolished totally.''
It seems some operators agree. Five Nelson Bay trawler operators have declared their practice environmentally damaging and want the federal government to buy them out.
Conservationists and people such as Eather say trawling is indiscriminate. Untargeted fish, called bycatch, are caught, with many thrown back in the ocean, dead.
''Of course, I get bycatch, but it goes back live,'' he says.
''I throw back undersized 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,'' he says. ''Every year, I see more and more southern bluefin.''
In October, the six-nation Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna agreed to a total quota rise of a third, from 9449 tonnes to 12,449 tonnes, although it remains on the critically endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
It's a reminder that wild-caught fish are a scarce resource and that fishermen, such as Eather, risk their lives 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.''
That's something to think about when considering the price of a line-caught ike jime fish.
Taste the difference
THE only places in Victoria you'll find Mark Eather's striped trumpeter and other brain-spiked catch is at Pure South (Southbank), Neil Perry's Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple, and at Shannon Bennett's Vue de Monde and Bistro Vue (Eather's fish is also served in Bennett's four Vue cafes, but typically in sandwiches).
Eather knows he will put noses out of joint but says that, in general, Australians lack an ''understanding of what is quality seafood'' and that ''in Melbourne, there seems to be a lesser appreciation than in Sydney''. He says greater demand in Sydney for sashimi-grade fish does not explain this discrepancy entirely, insisting that ike jime fish taste superior regardless of whether they are served sashimi-style or cooked.
''Even when cooked in a Western-style dish, you notice the different taste and texture,'' he says. ''It has a sleek, beautiful ocean flavour [and] you don't have an after-palate; you can't taste fish after you have eaten ike jime fish.''
Others aren't quite so convinced. Peter Canals, from long-established Canals Seafoods at Carlton North, says the only ike jime fish readily available for home consumption in Melbourne is yellowfin tuna (usually line-caught and often brain-spiked) and some New Zealand snapper.
New Zealand snapper is more readily available here in the colder months when it is not competing with the local product, so prices are high regardless of whether it is line-caught and killed with a brain spike or not. New Zealand ike jime snapper (whole fish) will fetch $1.50-$3 a kilogram more wholesale. Canals believes ike jime is important for sashimi but he says the method of rapidly chilling fish out on the water has more impact on its flavour, particularly if it's going to be cooked.