Eyre Peninsula Seafood Trail: tuna, oysters, lobster and more

Port Lincoln is the tuna capital of Australia

 

Slurping down a sweet Coffin Bay Pacific oyster at Port Lincoln Fresh Fish Place as workers shuck them at lightning speed, I ask owner Craig McCathie what it is about the Eyre Peninsula that makes the seafood here so special.

“On one side you have the warm saline waters of Spencer Gulf, which are ideal for prawns, calamari, and blue crabs, and on the other side are the cold, high-nutrient waters of the Great Australian Bight where southern bluefin tuna, snapper, and squid hang out,” he explains. “There are also the shallow estuaries, which are perfect for oysters, garfish and whiting. And let’s not forget the abalone, which live on the rugged limestone rocks. There is such an incredible diversity of environments for sea life and the waters are pristine along this isolated coastline.”

Then there is Port Lincoln itself, the seafood capital of Australia with its pronged headlands, which look like the claws of a blue swimmer crab protecting Boston Bay, one of the largest harbors in the world, where tuna are ranched and king fish and mussels are farmed.

After our tour of Craig’s fish processing plant, we enjoy a tasting platter of lime and ginger mussels, smoked oysters and tuna.  The Fresh Fish Place is also the home of the Port Seafood samples at Port Lincoln's Fresh Food PlaceLincoln  Seafood Cooking School, where visiting chefs offer seafood demonstrations as well as local identities from the Croatian, Italian, and Japanese communities giving classes about oysters, how to prepare raw tuna and kingfish as well as different ways to cook whole fish.

Swim with the Tuna

Another fascinating way to learn more is via a Swim with the Tuna adventure.  On the 20-minute boat ride to the tuna pontoon, Steve Wilson describes Port Lincoln’s tuna story.

Wild tuna used to be polled and brought back to canneries, but the imposition of quotas in the 1980s led enterprising local tuna fishermen Dinko Lukin and Joe Puglisi to invent tuna ranching where wild tuna is caught from December to February and towed back to pens outside Port Lincoln, where the fish are fattened for six months to double their weight before being sold into the premium Japanese sushi market.

The tuna industry got a crash course in Japanese and started practising iki jime, the Japanese way to kill fish with a brain spike between the eyes to prevent the stress that affects the Port Lincoln's Swim with the Tuna penquality of the precious pink flesh.

While commercial pens will have up to 4000 tuna, Swim with the Tuna’s pontoon has a comfortable 60 “pets”, as Steve calls them.  We don wet suits, gloves and booties and hop into the outer pool as he throws juicy pilchards into the water.  In a flash, these chubby ‘cheetahs of the sea’ streak past us to grab the fish in a feeding frenzy and we are, thrillingly, swept up in the midst of it all. There’s nothing like a visceral experience to get the full measure of the tuna biz in Port Lincoln, which is renowned for having more millionaires per capita than any other community in Australia.

Port Lincoln: Australia’s Tuna Capital

It turns out that local tuna baron Sam Sarin built the waterfront Port Lincoln Hotel, partly so Japanese buyers would have a nice place to stay.  Sam’s restaurant, called Sarin’s, is the perfect place to sample tuna rosettes on wakame seaweed and sesame-crusted tuna steaks, which we wash down with a minerally Riesling from Boston Bay Wines, which is owned by abalone fishing family, the Fords. Going for a walk along the pretty foreshore we discover a statue of Makybe Diva, three-time Melbourne Cup winner owned by another tuna baron, Tony Santic.

 Coffin Bay oysters

Coffin Bay has some of the best Oysters on the Eyre PeninsulaThe next morning we head to the oyster beds of Coffin Bay, which, thankfully, has nothing to do with putting oyster lovers into coffins. Matthew Flinders navigated this coastline during his 1802 journey. Many of the names he gave to the geographical features – Seasick Bay, Cape Catastrophe, and Anxious Bay – reflect the trials of his voyage, but he named Coffin Bay after Sir Isaac Coffin, a Royal Navy Commissioner who helped prepare the expedition.

Protected by long sandspits, Coffin Bay’s huge, shallow estuary has a strong tidal flow bringing in nutrients from the Southern Ocean and no rivers with agricultural run-off.  It is widely believed to be the best place in Australia to grow oysters, and Brendan Guidera of Pristine Oysters is the trailblazer, winning gold at every major Australian oyster-judging contest. And, while the Japanese transformed Port Lincoln’s tuna industry, the Hong Kong Chinese have begun a love affair with Coffin Bay oysters.

Taking us out on his punt, Brendan shows us his horizontal oyster baskets on adjustable long-line systems and explains how he raises or lowers them to manage shell growth and to capture the wave action that rumbles them for cleaning. While he produces about six million deep-shelled plump, sweet Pacific oysters a year, Brendan is passionate about Coffin Bay’s native angasi oysters, which are gaining accolades for their intense flavor.

Seafood Flavour Wheel

But how to describe the differences between a Pacific and angasi oyster?  Enter the Seafood Flavour Wheel recently released by the Eyre Peninsula Seafood Industry as a world-first initiative to accurately describe the appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture of 12 key Eyre Peninsula species.

Coffin Bay's Oysterbeds restaurant has fabulous local fareA specially trained panel under the guidance of Queensland sensory scientist Heather Smyth developed a new vocabulary for seafood, which is akin to wine terminology, so that now the angasi oysters can be described as plump, flat, pinky-mushroom in colour, having an aroma of tidal rock pool and mangrove plus intense hazelnut, rocket-like, slightly salty and complex savoury flavours, compared with Pacific oyster’s plump, bright, creamy appearance with a hint of pink whose aroma is fresh clean ocean with cucumber and fresh fish notes and whose flavour is intense sweet ocean, salty and savoury with a hint of asparagus.

Coffin Bay has an exceptional restaurant, The Oysterbeds, where you can taste these oysters and other seafood as well as local beef, lamb, pork, olives and other produce in dishes inspired by chef Marion Trethewey’s travels in Spain, the Middle East and South-East Asia. Marion also suggests visiting the lookout at the township entrance to marvel at the swirling sands and water of the magnificent estuary.

Pedro’s Crayfish at Elliston

It’s a one-and-a-half hour drive through blond wheat fields (the Eyre Peninsula is no slouch in the grain-growing biz and huge silos stand sentinel in every coastal port) to the pretty mural-dotted community of Elliston, where we visit Pedro’s Crayfish to buy a bright red southern rock lobster, which he’d picked up that morning from his 58 pots dotted in the ice-cold ocean.

Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience

Next day, it’s time to feel just how cold that water is first hand with Alan Payne at Baird Bay Ocean Eco Experience. For 20 years he’s been taking guests to swim with Baird Bay’s sea lions and resident pod of bottlenose dolphins. There’s not another boat to be seen on this blustery day but in the water we meet Slash and her offspring, Ash, Sunny and Mariah as they You can swim with sea lions and dolphins at Baird Bay Eco Experiencedive in the waves with us. While Alan and Trish have never fed or trained them the dolphins (or what they call the ‘lions of the sea’) the creatures choose to interact with us completely on their own terms.

We motor over to the sea lion colony on Jones Island and, immediately, a few young pups waddle into the water. Alan softly calls, “Hello girls, come to play?”  Slipping into the water in our wetsuits with Alan’s assistant Mick, we watch him dive and roll over and under with each of the pups who mimic his every move. Our turn now, and a pretty puppy dog face with big brown eyes is suddenly a whisker away from my face and I let out a giggle of bubbles.

Streaky Bay oysters and more

There are more oysters to taste and a fascinating oyster shed tour at Smoky Bay’s Angel Oysters, where Isaac and Kady Halman are exuberantly producing premium oysters, and abalone and Kinkawooka mussels to buy at Streaky Bay Marine Products before a final feast on the sun-kissed waterfront deck of Moceans Restaurant. Chef Hardy Weyrauch, who earned his stripes at the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna, combines Eyre Peninsula seafood and prime South Australian meats with bush seasonings to create splendid dishes such as pork belly and abalone stir fry and Portuguese seafood stew with chorizo and lemon myrtle.

Moceans in Streaky Bay“I just love the rugged and remote beauty here,” he says. “It’s the ocean equivalent of the Flinders Ranges, except now I look at white sand instead of red.”

Sensory scientist Heather Smyth sums up our feasting tour perfectly, “What really struck me about all the Eyre Peninsula seafood was its complexity and depth of flavor. There is something about this region that makes the seafood so spectacular.  The French use the term terroir to describe the combined effects of the local environment on wine. The concept is key for French Champagne, for instance.”

Perhaps we can think of Eyre Peninsula seafood as being the champagne of the sea. I’d certainly drink to that!

Your say

I’d love to hear about any special seafood experiences you’ve had in other parts of the world.

Pelicans at Baird Bay

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Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.
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2 comments to Eyre Peninsula Seafood Trail: tuna, oysters, lobster and more

  • jon harrison  says:

    I’ve been meaning to get down to the Eyre Peninsula for years as I love fishing. Thanks so much for all these terrific tips.

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      You are more than welcome. The fishing is great and if you don’t catch anything yourself there is so much fabulous seafood for sale all along the region.

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