Melbourne's best chefs are fighting the Victorian government over its ban on net fishing

Melbourne chefs, including Guy Grossi and Donovan Cooke, threw their support behind the commercial fishers of Port Phillip Bay, who are facing government bans. Source: Facebook

Masterchef’s George Calombaris, world’s 50 best restaurateur Ben Shrewry of Attica, Rockpool Bar & Grill’s Neil Perry, Movida’s Frank Camorra and Supernormal’s Andrew McConnell are among a dozen of Melbourne’s top chef’s who’ve thrown their support behind local fisherman after the Victorian government announced this week that it would ban commercial net fishing in Port Phillip Bay.

The Andrews Labor government plans to spent $20 million closing down commercial fishing in Port Phillip Bay, which is 35 times bigger than Sydney Harbour, over the next eight years, despite the fact that conservation groups agree the fishery is sustainable. The government, which says it is honouring an election commitment, is being accused of caving into the recreational fishing lobby, with 43 family fishing businesses set to lose their livelihood as the industry comes to an end after 170 years.

Under the plan, netting will end in Corio Bay by 2018 and Port Phillip Bay by 2022. A limited non-net commercial fishery will continue after April 2022.

But Melbourne’s top chefs are saying the public will lose access to some of the freshest fish in the world as a result and the industry has warned that prices for popular fish such as flathead and snapper will rise dramatically, or be replaced by imported seafood from countries with questionable environmental records.

There are just 43 commercial fishing licences still working in Port Phillip Bay, a drop of 63% over the last 15 years.

The closure is part of the government’s “Target One Million” plan, which wants to increase the number of recreational anglers in the state by around a third to one million.

The fishing industry argues that the main competition for recreational anglers fishing in Port Phillip Bay are other recreational anglers, not commercial fishermen. They say the current commercial catch in is 650-700 tonnes annually across 68 different species, while the recreational snapper haul alone is reportedly more than 600 tonnes a year.

And Seafood Industry Victoria claims forced legal operators out will lead to a bigger black market for whiting and snapper sold by “shamateurs” when 80% of the wild caught seafood from the bay is consumed locally.

Neil Perry, who has three restaurants in Melbourne and serves snapper, whiting, flathead and calamari, among other seafood sourced from the bay, says it’s unfair to give recreational anglers priority over commercial fishers when there’s no science to back up the government plan.

“It’s the freshest fish in the world and- it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep,” Perry said.

“I think the government’s making a massive mistake. There’s nothing sensible about this decision. It will put 230 people out of a job

“If the experts were saying it was not sustainable I’d have an issue, but everyone’s saying it is. It’s been sustainable for 100 years and will be sustainable for another 100 years. This is about votes, it’s not about sustainable seafood.”

The chef said the decision will also have flow on effects for local markets in the city selling Port Phillip seafood and prevent locals from buying great fresh seafood at a reasonable price.

“It’s the best flathead in the world, no doubt and the flavour’s phenomenal,” he said. “And it’s like nowhere else in the world, because the fish are caught overnight and in the market the next day.”

He believes the decision will also damage Melbourne’s reputation as a food mecca at a time when international chefs such as Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen is emphasising the importance of sourcing local ingredients.

Melbourne Frank Camorra, who serves tommy rough, sardines and anchovies from the bay in this three Movida restaurants said it was “just a political decision”.

“It’s a small fishery but it’s a big thing for the people involved, who are going to lose their livelihoods,” he said

“All these fisheries are well maintained, so it’s not about overfishing at all.”

Other chefs opposing the government plan include Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino, Adam d’Sylva of Coda, The Atlantic’s Donovan Cooke, Jason Lui of Flower Drum and The European’s Ian Curley.

The Victorian Parliament is set to debate the legislation to ban net fishing in Port Phillip Bay next week, starting on November 24.

Seafood Industry Victoria has launched a petition and hopes to generate a groundswell of support against the plan. The petition is here.

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