FRESH FISH HERE
The history of fishing in Australia is one of people and place, for those who’ve been here longest, and for those putting down roots, writes ALECIA SIMMONDS.
Fishing in Australia is about place and people – those who’ve been here longest, and those putting down roots.
At dusk, Sydney’s Little Bay has a spiritual quality. Unlike the crashing waves of nearby Maroubra, the water here is eerily still, silken, protected by an amphitheatre of lofty boulders. Renaissance sunlight streams through streaky clouds and sets the underside of gum trees aglow. I’m perched on a rocky outcrop, tugging gently on my fishing line, hoping that nothing tugs back. Anna Clark, Australia’s most prominent writer of fishing history and self-declared “fishing tragic” stands beside me. “This is the best time to catch squid,” she says. My heart sinks.
Fishing is a paradox. One that encourages contemplation of the forms of life that quiver and dart in the ocean, but also presents the very real prospect of killing and eating them. “Fish”, says Hemingway’s Old Man in The Old Man and the Sea, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you before this day ends.” Clark tells me freshly caught squid is sweet and crunchy, but the hooks and knives of fishing turn my mind to butchery more than pleasure. As a sport, it seems less a meditation than a theatre of cruelty; an attempt to claim dominion over the ocean. Historically speaking, Clark says, I couldn’t be more wrong.
“See the pool over there?” she says, pointing to what looks like a natural rockpool. “Archaeologists think that Eora people might have originally made that as a fish trap – well Eora women most likely. The fish would come into the bay and at low tide they’d stay there, confined by the rocks.”
In her latest book The Catch, Clark describes how Eora women would paddle out in their bark canoes, called nowies, and drop hooks carved out of shells, while men would spearfish. Joseph Banks describes peering from the deck of The Endeavour one night to see “many moving lights” bobbing in the waters of Botany Bay, which would have been Eora women night-fishing, using firesticks to attract fish. And when these women went fishing they turned the harbour into a vast
auditorium. French navigator Louis de Freycinet recorded
“un chant particulier des femmes qui vont à la pêche”, a peculiar song the women sing when they fish, which was low, sonorous and in minor keys.
There was also the ceremony of malgun. In this practice, a length of spider web would be tied around the first two joints of an infant girl’s left little finger, where it would stay until the finger mortified and fell away. The blackened flesh would then be taken out to sea and dropped to the fish as an offering.
For these women, fishing was an act of mutual sacrifice. There was no claim of ownership here, rather a bond to the ocean that was reverential.
We can also forget that Sydney Harbour was mapped by maritime men, whose eyes strained seaward more than to the land. They called landmarks after their own appetites: Cockle Bay, Oyster Bay, Chowder Bay – the latter named for the briny stews that whalers would cook on its shores. Food historian Jacqui Newling notes that Botany Bay was originally named Stingray Harbour by Captain Cook, who happily feasted on skate from its waters.
For them, fishing was often a necessity, but it was also a pleasure. In the shadows of momentous occasions like Governor Philip scouting Port Jackson as the potential settlement for the new colony, were men like Jacob Nagle, one of his oarsman, who casually dropped a line while he waited and was rewarded with a large black bream. The First Fleet sailed with 8,000 fish-hooks and 576 lines that were to be used by women and men alike. Elizabeth Macquarie famously out-fished both her husband and son at Watson’s Bay in 1821. And fish was a staple of the early colonial diet, eaten in soups and pies, curried, crumbed, and served au gratin.
As the European nets brought in larger hauls and harbour stocks diminished, though, fishing became much more about preventing spoilage. Fishers needed to both transport their supply and keep it cold in the process. “The history of fishing is partly a history of refrigeration,” Clark says. Until the 1920s, when engines on boats became the norm, there was no power for a refrigeration system, which meant most boats threw out more fish than they kept. For anyone who didn’t live directly by the sea, chances are the only fish they’d eat in their life would be cured or smoked. Or potentially spoiled, given that it was often sold by hawkers going door-to-door without any ice.
Even for those who did have access to fresh fish, their culinary blinkers often meant they overlooked the most delicious morsels of the ocean. One advertisement from the 1920s recommended squid, roasted octopus, crabs and even lobster as bait for snapper. In the early 1940s there were complaints that Albany’s harbour in Western Australia was “nearly choked” with bluefin tuna. ”They were considered a pest by local fishers,” says Clark, “because they chomped through the fishing nets.”
“So what changed?“I ask. ”Italians,” she says. ”And all the other migrants – more than a million – who came to Australia in the decades following World War II.” Italian immigrants taught Anglo-Saxons about the pleasures of charred octopus, just like Japanese migrants popularised raw tuna in America in the ’80s. Many post-war migrants came to Australia from small fishing communities in Sicily or Calabria, and in their efforts to keep these fishing traditions alive they initiated a revolution in Australian cuisine – a whole host of neglected species, ones we now cherish, went from bait to plate.
Some immigrants also fished to supplement the food they were served in migrant workcamps; Clark’s book abounds with sepia-coloured images of dark-haired women in threequarter-length skirts holding a line on the banks of the Murray, or bare-footed Italian men cleaning nets on the piers of Woolloomooloo. “It’s not that different today,” she says. “Look at the people fishing now.” I glance up to see a line of Vietnamese men traipsing down from the rocks carrying buckets and rods. “You still see the old Greek men tenderising octopus on the boat ramp at Botany Bay.”
Night has started to blot the air and the water at Little Bay is inky. I’ve been tossing the line over my shoulder for almost an hour now, listening to the whoosh as it reels out to sea, feeling the tickle of salt water at my ankles. Without the complications of a catch the experience has been deeply relaxing. A bit amphibious. It’s a moment where you stand on the border of the non-human world and feel your own smallness.
For Clark, it’s a way of connecting with Australia’s past.
“It was only in the twentieth century that women really started to be mocked for fishing, and unfortunately fishing culture is still like that today,” she says. “It’s considered a man’s sport, a way of getting away from the wife and kids. But I love to imagine those Eora women out there in their nowies, balancing their babies and children in the canoe, catching tonight’s dinner.”
For me, it’s Joseph Banks’s vision from windows of The Endeavour that remains: Sydney Harbour lit up with bobbing, flickering lights and the sounds of the women singing their odes to the ocean.
One advertisement from the 1920s recommended squid, crabs and lobster as bait for snapper.