Sardine fisherman hopes changing consumer attitude will put his catch on the plate

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David Gray wants his fish on plates.

The commercial fisherman from Esperance has spent years catching and selling sardines around the country as bait.

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

He now has the human consumption market in his sights.

“It’s always been my dream to do this,” Mr. Gray said.

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

“That will work in our favor going forward.”

Change of attitude

The majority of Australian edible seafood is imported, mainly from Asia.

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

“All industries have had a lot of supply chain issues – seafood has been really affected by this,” he said.

“You bring in imported goods, at extra cost through freight. It has created this gap between local and imported goods [seafood] a little bit closer.

“Many companies are trying to prepare for the future. Aligning with local products…is potentially more beneficial than relying on imported products.”

Charlie, the son of Espérance fisherman David Gray, with a catch of sardines.(Provided: David Gray)

But he added that the change could also be attributed to consumers’ “socially responsible” mindset, citing sardines – known for their high omega-3 content and low carbon footprint – as an example.

“One of the things about sardines is, rightfully, they’re one of the most superfoods of all,” Clark said.

“People are looking for healthier fish while being more aware of [their] environmental carbon footprint.”

By law, seafood sold in Australian supermarkets or fishmongers must be labeled with the country it comes from.

But, other than the Northern Territory, no state or territory legislates for restaurants to adopt country of origin labelling.

The point turned out to divide the commercial fishing and hospitality sectors.

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

“The costs associated with policing are really tough,” he said.

“But hopefully it’s something we’re working towards.”

Trust in local food production

Mr Gray said the green light to fulfill his dream of expansion came after his business received nearly $150,000 through a state government grant in 2019.

A man holds a box in one hand and a package of fish in the other
Breaking into the human consumption market has been a slow process, but David Gray believes it will pay off.

But COVID has made progress difficult.

“Just doing anything was slow because everyone was understaffed,” he said.

“But we ended up doing everything and we’re ready to go.”

His company is finally set up for transformation.

Silver flounder fillets are currently being packaged and supplied to local retailers and wholesalers.

He hopes to do something similar with sardines as soon as possible.

“I think local food production is the way to go,” Gray said.

“Food security is a big issue, and I think any local food production will be fine.”

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