Effect of dredging in an Australian bay

Troubled waters
Richard Cornish, The Age 25 Mar 08;

The die has been cast. But what effect will dredging have on the fish and seafood stocks of Port Phillip Bay, asks Richard Cornish.

SAM GEORGIOU powers his fishing boat through the water near Geelong. He grins as we ride across the choppy wake of another boat. "I love this," Georgiou shouts over the din of the motor. "I am one of the men who puts the fish on your table. Fresh, local fish. And we love what we do."

Fisherman Georgiou is also chairman of the Western Port and Port Phillip Professional Fishermen's Association. Hundreds of fishermen once worked in the bay selling their catch from the jetties and piers to which they tethered their boats.

Now there are just a dozen or so full-time licensed operators still fishing the 1950 square kilometres of the bay on a regular basis.

Although Port Phillip Bay is a relatively small catchment, producing about 400 tonnes of fish (worth roughly $2.5 million), its real importance lies in the fact that it is so close to Melbourne. A fish caught in the bay in the early hours of this morning could well be on your plate tonight.

Our city's bay of plenty has always been a reliable source of food. Scientist and author Tim Flannery has described its upper reaches at the time of settlement as being a "temperate Kakadu" - wetlands teeming with "brolgas, Cape Barren geese, swans, ducks, eels and frogs".

The middens of shells in the dunes along our beaches are evidence of the great feeds of native oysters the Bunurong and Wurundjeri tribes once ate. Today, Georgiou is testament to the edibles we reap from Port Phillip Bay.

Georgiou first fished the bay when he came to Australia from Cyprus 34 years ago and knows every sandbar, reef, rock, and, most importantly, where the fish are - King George whiting, flathead, garfish, snapper and squid.

He starts his working day in the late afternoon and continues until the break of dawn, ending up at the Melbourne Wholesale Fish Market in Footscray with his haul.

As he works, the Port of Melbourne Corporation is deepening the channels of the bay to make way for larger and deeper container ships. Opponents believe the dredging to be unnecessary, environmentally destructive and that by disturbing silt in the Yarra, the bay could be contaminated by buried agricultural and industrial chemicals.

But for now, according to Fisheries Victoria, fish stocks are healthy.

"It is in its best state for 30 years," says Peter Appleford, Fisheries Victoria executive director.

"We're looking forward to a good whiting season this year and the snapper looks good as well."

But what do the men who spend their every working day on the bay think of its most recent visitors - the dredgers?

While we wait for the net to be hauled in, Georgiou heads to another part of the bay. Underneath the boat, glimmers of green seagrass beds and sand flash by. Georgiou points to where we have arrived on his satellite navigation monitor. It reads: "spoil grounds".

"Over 10 years ago they dredged the Geelong Channel and dumped the waste right where we are now," he says. "The seagrass hasn't grown back.

"I'm not against dredging in the bay. But what I am worried about is what they are going to do with the toxic silt they are going to dredge up from the Yarra. The Government is not telling us, fee-paying licence holders, what they are up to."

He hands over the binoculars and points towards the shore in the distance. "We are not the only ones making a living out of the bay," he says, pointing to a cluster of buildings and tanks on a piece of land near the old Cheetham salt works at Avalon Beach, one of three abalone farms operating on Port Phillip Bay. Seawater is pumped into the farm channels from an inlet 350 metres from the beach, through 60 concrete tanks and then returned to the sea.

The farmed abalone are bred from hardy Port Phillip Bay natives used to the great temperature variations and natural turbidity of the water.

The three farms produce 150 tonnes of abalone annually, valued at $4.5 million, and employ about 25 full-time workers and a larger number of casual workers. Most of the abalone are sold live to the Asian restaurant market in Melbourne or flown to Japan and China. The rest are either canned or vacuum-packed.

Unlike the abalone farms to the west of Cape Otway, the dreaded abalone herpes virus hasn't reached Port Phillip Bay. The owner of Avalon farm, Peter Rankin, has been operating for 10 years and believes the dredging will have no effect on the industry.

There are also about 20 mussel growers producing the 1000 tonnes of mussels sold annually at markets and supermarkets across the state. But these growers take up just a portion of the nearly 2000 hectares the State Government has set aside for further aquaculture. It is possible the industry could expand tenfold.

Producers say a far bigger worry than the dredging is the spread of a natural parasite, the Japanese starfish.

Tiny baby wild mussels, or spat, are spawned from the breeding mussels that carpet large areas of the bay floor. The spat are captured on ropes and then grown out. The harvest of wild spat in recent years has been "hopeless", according to Lance Wiffen of Sea Bounty Mussels.

The Portarlington mussel farmer points the finger at the swarms of starfish that have invaded the bay in the past decade. "They decimate everything, including the wild mussel population, then they start to eat each other," he says.

The long-term viability of the industry could be ensured, however, if a new mussel breeding operation at Queenscliff, run jointly by the industry and the Department of Primary Industries, proves successful, he says.

Back on Georgiou's boat there is an urgent call on the radio that ends all talk of dredging. He has a more urgent worry. A seal has come across the net cast by his business partner Angelo Xenos and deck hand Chris Nicholson. Greek curses come through the radio's speaker, thankfully distorted. Georgiou speeds back to Xenos' boat. If he gets there in time he may be able to lure the seal away by trailing some net behind his boat.

By the time we reach the nets the seal is inside. Cormorants, terns and pelicans that have been picking off the trapped fish one by one have flown to safety. The seal rolls and snorts on the surface, diving below and reappearing with a black bream in his mouth.

"He'll scare all the fish out and eat the rest," says Georgiou.

"Send the bitch the bill!" shouts Xenos.

The men grab a quick bite to eat. Xenos opens a container filled with dried meats, olives, cheese and spanikopita, made by his wife that morning.

The sun drops behind the horizon flooding the sky with pinks and mauves. Pelicans wait nearby. Just as the catch is hauled in, the seal surfaces, snorts and jumps over the net. Waders on and standing chest high in the warm water, Georgiou and Xenos sort the fish. Measuring stick in one hand they throw their fish into bins on board. Undersized fish go back into the bay. "I'll see you next year," says Xenos to a little garfish. The catch is not great. Nicholson throws a single Moreton Bay bug on to the deck. "When I was working with the scallop boats 20 years ago we used to see lots of these," says Georgiou. "But not so many these days. The bay is much cleaner than it was back then. Then there was so much more algae, now it is the sun-bleached seagrass that is the problem."

A large flathead is landed, a slight discolouration on its head. "Remember a few months back there was the lesions scare with the bay fish?" asks Xenos. "That was due to the hot weather," he says. "Sunburned fish! Now they have recovered."

The sorting goes on. High-value fish, King George whiting, flathead and garfish are separated into boxes. The team motors on in the dark further down the bay. They shoot another net in the still water near Clifton Springs. A fat moon rises over the Bellarine Peninsula. There's a familiar snort. The seal has followed them. The catch is dismal.

They head back to shore and wash and sort their catch. Within the hour they'll drop the fish off at the fish market. It's 2am.

Georgiou looks at the boxes. "Bloody seal," he says. "But you know what? There's nothing we can do. His kind have been here long before we got here. It's everybody's bay."


King George whiting

Considered the king of the bay with its delicate, sweet-tasting flesh.

Fillets rolled into rosettes and gently steamed offer an interesting way of sampling its flavour. Alternatively, lightly dust in seasoned flour and quickly shallow pan fry in a little butter and a sprinkle of salt.


Snapper are best on the bone.

Steam whole by seasoning the inside, adding a few pieces of peeled ginger. Score the outside, place on a large heatproof plate, pour over a tablespoon of soy sauce and place in a large steamer over hot water and simmer for 15-20 minutes. When done, remove plate from steamer and heat three tablespoons of peanut oil in a small saucepan until smoking. Place a handful of coriander on the fish and carefully pour over the oil.


There are many different flathead caught in Australasia, much of it coming from Gippsland, NSW or New Zealand. Flathead have lovely moist flesh with an annoying row of bones that creates the need for the "Y"-shaped fillet.

Bake whole, dress with some olive oil, lemon and salt, then lift the flesh away from the bones. For a Friday night favourite, mix a stubby of Coopers Pale Ale with two cups of self-raising flour, a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of saffron and let the mixture rest for an hour. Dip the fillets in beaten egg, seasoned plain flour then batter. Deep-fry in hot olive oil, drain then season with salt.


An ugly bottom dweller with a twisted face but wonderfully gelatinous flesh.

Small flounder can fit perfectly in a frying pan. Rinse, pat dry, dust with well-seasoned flour and gently shallow fry in a mixture of butter and oil for a few minutes each side. Try seasoning a larger fish inside and out and drizzle with a little oil. Place in a very hot, preheated oven then turn it off. Allow the remaining heat to cook the fish for about 10-20 minutes. Dress with lemon and melted butter with capers.


Wonderful little silver streaks with pronounced bills.

Cooked over coals and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, garfish are a sweet delight. If you don't like the fine bones, ask the fishmonger to prepare the fish, leaving the head and tail on. These can be dusted in seasoned flour and lightly fried on the barbecue.


Fresh squid is a joy.

It must be just-cooked for a few minutes or slow cooked with liquid. Any way in between, you hit the dreaded rubbery zone. Cut into squares and score diagonally, it can then be dusted in seasoned cornflour, deep fried for a few minutes then served with aioli. Or marinate in oil, lemon and garlic for half an hour and grill over hot coals and sprinkle with salt.