Anyone looking backwards upon the history of Australia cannot fail to be impressed by one peculiar feature, which is the more distinctive, too, because it is in striking contrast with all else. It is the more noteworthy also, because it affects each individual inhabitant of this island continent, and has a direct bearing on the daily life of every person is the community. Thus, on the one hand, while we are nearing a maximum of progress — or, at any rate, attaining to a high level of success — in political matters, in commercial affairs, and in athletic prowess, yet, on the other, there is unfortunately an apathetic indifference in all that concerns our public and family food habits, which after all constitute the national characteristics of any people. It is true that we have gained the dignity of responsible government, that our wool and frozen meat are entering the markets of the world, and that in the athletic arena our fame is spread both far and wide. Yet it must be confessed that our national food-life has not conformed to climatic requirements in the slightest degree since the memorable day on which Captain Cook set foot on these shores. As those on the Endeavour lived then, so live are now. On the continent of Europe it will be found that the manners and customs, even of contiguous countries, are as widely different as it is possible to imagine. Surely then, it is, to say the least of it, curious to see the inhabitants of a semi-tropical country like Australia living in wilful contradiction to their climatic necessities, and eating the same kind of food as did their fathers in the old land, with its dampness its coldness, its ice, and its snow.
Yet, notwithstanding the fact that reflections of this kind are interesting in the highest degree, I propose to do no more than consider the matter exclusively from the standpoint of the subject heading of this chapter. Here, again, we are directly confronted with an inexplicable anomaly — I refer to the want of enterprise shown in developing the deep-sea fisheries of Australia. Now, if the dwellers of this land had sprung from an entirely inland race, this would not, perhaps, have been so difficult to understand; but arising, as we do, from a stock the most maritime that the world has ever seen, such a defect redounds not to our credit as inheritors of the old traditions. At our present rate of fisheries development it will take centuries before we will be able to produce anything to even approach the International Fisheries exhibition of the old country in 1883. At that memorable exposition His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, in the course of his conference paper, gave expression to the following stirring words:—“From the earliest ages the inhabitants of the coast of the British Islands have made the sea contribute to their food. This pursuit has produced a race of men strong, inured to hardship and exposure, patient and persevering in their calling, brave, prompt, and fall of resource in the face of danger; intelligent and amenable to discipline, from the daily habit of subordinating their own wills to that of anyone whom they know is placed in authority over them for the, purpose of directing their labours and working with them for the common benefit; accustomed to co-operate with others for the attainment of a certain end. These qualities are not only exercised from early youth, but are inherited and intensified from generation to generation. The foundations of the great position which this kingdom has attained amongst the nations of the world must, in some measure, be attributed to our fishermen, for they were our first sea-men; and, from small beginnings, our seamen increased in number and in skill, until the whole nation was leavened with that love of maritime adventure which has resulted in peopling the uttermost parts of the earth with our race, and in establishing that empire upon which the sun never ceases to shine. In earlier times our first maritime commerce must have been conducted by our fishermen, who also manned our fighting navies. The fisheries of the West of England were the nurseries of the sailors who enabled Drake to circumnavigate the world, and, as he said, to ‘singe the King of Spain’s beard’ on more than one memorable occasion.”
That fish should be, comparatively speaking, so scarce in Australia can only be regarded in the light of a national calamity. And not only is the supply deficient, but what little there may be is so outrageously expensive that it is hopelessly beyond the reach of an ordinary purse. It is so excessive in cost that it must almost be bracketed with poultry as a luxury only to be indulged in after lengthened periods. I have been told, when making inquiries on this point, that the reason why fish is so dear is that this is not a fish-eating community, and that consequently there is no demand for it. But, on the other hand, I find that almost everyone I ask is really fond of fish, and that they do not eat it simply because they cannot obtain it at a reasonable price, and this undoubtedly is the true explanation.
But this same scarcity of fish has exercised other people besides myself, for Mr. Alexander Oliver and many others have repeatedly drawn attention to the same deficiency. It has been the primary origin of a Board of Fisheries, it had brought forth Parliamentary Select Committees, and it has produced endless opinions and suggestions on the part of the public. Now, I am quite willing to admit that there should be proper supervision over the working of the Fisheries Acts, and that existing grievances should be rectified; but, with all due deference, it seems to me that the finger has not been placed on the exact reason why failure occurs in our fish supply. For I say this, that you may do what you will to protect and supervise the shore and inland fisheries, and you may even increase the yield from these sources to an encouraging extent, but that till the deep-sea work is thoroughly taken up and properly developed there will be no cheap fish for Australia. It has been stated that if the deep-sea fisheries of the United Kingdom fell through from any reason, half-a-million of its inhabitants would be brought face to face with starvation. And even these enormous figures include only the fisher-folk themselves, and do not take into account the vast army of buyers, curers, dealers, &c., who are dependent for their very existence upon the fishing industry. Take away the deep-sea fisheries from the old country, and its whole fish supply would practically be at an end. In the same way by the development of our Australian deep-sea fisheries — and by the development of the deep-sea fisheries only — will it be possible, in my humble opinion, to increase the supply and cheapen the price of fish so that it will form part of the dietary in every dwelling.
There was an important select committee appointed by the Victorian Government, a short time ago, to inquire into the unsatisfactory condition of the fishing industry there. It examined a great number of witnesses, and its investigations extended over a large area. Amongst other things, with a view of encouraging trawling operations, it was suggested —
“That a careful survey be made of the sea-bottom in the neighbourhood of our coasts and in Bass’ Straits, and the part suitable for trawling properly charted. That a few sets of trawling apparatus of the most modern kind be procured by the Government, and Applications invited from the fishermen at the various ports for permission to use these trawls, free of charge, under certain conditions for a limited period. That the Government fit out a steamer for the purpose of collecting and conveying to Melbourne the fish obtained by the trawlers, the steamer to be provided with cooling chambers, &c.”
A number of different matters were also considered, and, in addition, it was thought that, in order to afford the general public greater facilities for obtaining fish, the sale should not be confined to the metropolitan market. It was, therefore, recommended that stalls in the various markets for the sale of fish by auction and otherwise should be opened in the leading suburbs of Melbourne; and that the corporation officer in the metropolitan market, to whom the fish was consigned, should regularly distribute to each of these suburban markets such a quantity of fish as experience would show the particular locality demanded. To a certain extent all this is very satisfactory, but unfortunately select committees have arrived at very similar conclusions over and over again. All their recommendations have never yet been attended by any practical result, and an adequate fish supply for Australia appears to be as far off as ever.
About the last place one would expect to come across a really fine piece of delicate humour is amongst official correspondence, and yet in a formal letter from Dr. E.P. Ramsay, the Curator of the Australian Museum, to Sir Saul Samuel the following passage occurs. Speaking of the New South Wales exhibits at the International Fisheries Exhibition of London, 1883, the doctor proceeds to remark:—“People here, imagining that we must have already developed extensive fisheries, from the large collection of food fishes which we exhibit, were not less surprised at our very limited materials and methods of capture than at the immense undeveloped wealth of our fisheries and fish fauna.” Now, I venture to say that a more unconsciously subtle insinuation at the crude methods of fish capture at present employed in our Australian fisheries was never penned. But what makes it so keenly effective is that it really hits the right nail on the head. In giving evidence, also, before Mr. Frank Farnell’s select committee of 1889, Dr. Ramsay, upon being asked whether he thought our fishermen were abreast of the times with regard to appliances, replied:—“They are about 200 years behind the times.”
To my mind another most convincing proof of the crude methods of fish capture employed in Australian waters is to be found in the following. In one of the Fisheries Reports it is gravely recorded that “some very valuable gear IN GENERAL USE amongst English, Norwegian, and American fishermen, had been destroyed in the Garden Palace fire, but that the commissioners had been able to replace the otter-trawl and the beam-trawl.” The very fact that these appliances, in active use at the present time by those in the foremost front of fishery enterprise, are regarded in the light of curiosities in Australia, proves only too forcibly the correctness-of this opinion as to our primitive fishery appliances.
It must not be imagined that trawling has never been advocated (indeed, it has even been experimentally practised), for we have only to look through the various Fisheries Reports to find it repeatedly referred to; unfortunately, however, these appeals so far have been without any practical results. It will, therefore, be most instructive to refer briefly to the manner in which trawling and other modes of deep-sea fishing are carried out elsewhere; and more particularly to bring under notice the enormous fish yield effected by them. Trawling, or as it is more properly termed, beam-trawling, may be described as a method of deep-sea fishing, in which a large bag net is towed along the ground so as to scoop, as it were, the fish into its receptacle. There are at least several important stations in England for trawling; some in the English Channel; some on the west, and also on the Welsh coast; and others again (amongst which is Grimsby, the largest fishing port in the world) on the east coast on the North Sea. The trawling grounds of the latter are widely known, and comprise the famous Dogger Bank, which covers many hundreds of acres in area. In its neighbourhood, also, there are numerous grounds such as the Inner and Outer Well Banks, and there are others again nearer the English coast. In addition to these there is the Great Silver Pit, discovered in a severe winter in 1843; and it has been noticed that during the winter months the fish frequent the deeper water, because the temperature is more equable than in shallow places. The depth at which trawling is usually carried on varies from 20 to 30 fathoms; never under any circumstances reaching 50 fathoms — the depth of the Silver Pit being from 35 to 45 fathoms.
It was formerly urged against trawling that it was very destructive to the spawn, at that time supposed to be lying on the sea bottom. But the investigations of the late Professor Sars, for the Swedish Government, into the spawning habits of sea fish, have conclusively revealed the fact that the ova of fish float on the surface of the water during the whole period of their development. Not only have the floating ova of the cod and haddock been reared, but the common plaice, the representative of the flatfish family, including the brill, the sole, and the turbot, is also known to spawn near the surface. The eggs of the mackerel and the garfish have likewise been found floating, and successfully hatched. Now, no fish comes so close to the land as does the mackerel, yet it is certain that it never makes its way into the estuaries and inlets till after spawning is finished — for that it spawns in the open sea is almost without a doubt. These facts consequently do away altogether with the old statements concerning the destructive results of trawling.
The yield from the English trawleries alone is computed to be over 200,000 tons annually, and as the price for trawled fish at the Billingsgate market averages 12 pounds per ton, this represents about two and a half million pounds. And, in addition to these weighty figures, Professor Huxley’s words deserve to be well remembered, for, says he, “Were trawl fishing stopped, it would no longer be a case of high prices, but that ninety-nine out of a hundred would hardly be able to afford any at all — herrings and a few other fish caught in the old way excepted.” Indeed, it is chiefly by this method of beam trawling that London and the interior are supplied with brill, turbot, and soles; while by it thousands of tons of plaice, haddock, and other fish are brought within the reach even of the poorest.
Important though the beam-trawl may be, there is another mode of deep-sea fishing which deserves to be well known by us in Australia, and which undoubtedly must come into general use before we can make any pretensions with regard to our fisheries. I refer to that by means of drift-nets. As the trawl is absolutely necessary, on the one hand, for capturing fish which frequent the bottom, so, on the other, the drift-net is essential for those whose resort is the upper portion of the sea. It is by this method alone that fish like the herring, the mackerel, and the pilchard — which may be termed surface fish — are caught in great quantities for food supply.
Now, in Australia, we have vast shoals of migratory fish visiting the coast at different periods of the year. During the winter season enormous numbers of herrings come to these shores, and are permitted to depart without any effort being made to capture them. Attention has been repeatedly called to this strange neglect in our fisheries, for this herring is plentiful and is considered to surpass the famous Scottish herring itself in flavour. The mackerel, too, is to be met with annually, generally about midwinter, in immense shoals, passing near the coast upwards in a northerly direction. The sea mullet also makes its appearance towards the end of the summer months, usually from April to June, at the very time when it is in splendid condition and full of roe. It is always observed to be proceeding towards the north in successive shoals and in great numbers. Many consider its richness and delicacy of flavour to be unequalled. The driftnet system of fishing would be well adapted for it — if the meshes were larger than those for the herring — as when fully grown it is nearly two feet in length. And lastly, it will only be necessary to speak of the “maray,” which is practically the English pilchard. As with the fish just mentioned, it is met with about midwinter, passing up north in countless numbers, sometimes covering miles of sea.
As the name implies, drift-nets are not worked from the shore, but they are “shot,” as the saying is, in the open sea, and allowed to drift in whatever direction the tide may take them. Each drift-net will measure about 180 feet in length by about 30 feet in depth. They are secured to one another at the ends to form a long single line, perhaps two miles in length. By means of floats the nets hang perpendicularly in the water, thus forming a long wall against which the fish “strike,” and get enmeshed by being caught in the gill opening. The nets are kept on the stretch by being “shot” in the face of the wind, and the vessel from which they are paid out, being to leeward of them, drifts more rapidly than they do, and consequently keeps them well extended.
My object, however, is not so much to enter into the details of these different methods of deep-sea fishing as to indicate their value and necessity, if we are to have any fisheries worth speaking of. I shall, therefore, do no more than briefly mention a few other modes of fish capture. Thus, at the mouth of the Thames, thousands of tons of sprats are caught every winter by means of the large bag net, known as the stow net. In shape it is like an enormous funnel, 30 feet high, 20 feet wide, and nearly 180 feet in length. By means of this contrivance the yield of sprats is so great that there is often some little difficulty in disposing of the catch. The renowned whitebait, too, which are believed to be young herrings, are caught by means of a similar, though much smaller, net.
Besides these and various other forms of net fishing, there are the methods in which the long line is employed. For the capture of the cod, both in Newfoundland and in the North Sea, what is called the bultow is used. This is a long line many hundreds of-feet in length, and at every twelfth foot shorter and smaller cords called “snoods” are fastened. These “snoods” are about 6 feet long, and have the hooks attached to their free ends. The bultow is “shot” across the tide to prevent entanglement of the hooks, and is laid in the afternoon. At daybreak, when the lines are hauled in, as many as 400 of the large cod sometimes result from the catch. There are various other appliances used for fish capture in different parts of the world, such as the purse-seine net, the trammel net, the otter-trawl net, &c.; and, as I have already pointed out, the most scathing satire on our fisheries is to find all these necessary means for catching fish regarded as curiosities. When they are no longer considered so, it will be a fortunate time for Australia.
What would the proper development of our deep-sea fisheries mean? In the first place, it would lead to a more widely diffused use of fish as an article of diet, within the easy reach of all classes, being thus of incalculable value from a health point of view. Next, it would ensure employment to many hundreds, and eventually to many thousands, both directly and indirectly, and as a natural consequence this would bring about the creation of a sturdy and desirable maritime element in our population. And lastly, it would yield a more than satisfactory return on the outlay invested.
At the present time only the veriest few of our metropolitan population are able to afford the luxury of fish, and people in the country towns hardly see it at all. So, too, we are casting about for this plan and for that plan to lessen a growing difficulty in the Australian metropolitan centres. There are village settlements (which certainly deserve to be successful), and other proposals made to relieve a surplus population, but yet no one has suggested the sea as a means of remedying this congestion. And not only would the fisheries confer upon its followers a healthy calling, but they would raise a vigorous stock of which Australia might well be proud. In addition to all this, a proper development of our deep-sea fisheries would assuredly open up a new avenue for investment. Is it not amazing that men will risk all they have in mines which are not even real, and which exist, only on paper? And besides this, in the most genuine mine that was ever worked there is at least a costly outlay for production, for crushing, or for smelting, before the metal sees the light of day; but in the sea the catch is ready for the market, and only requires the bringing to land.
This matter, therefore, must be taken up earnestly, and there must be a determination to succeed. In the first place, and before all else in the deep-sea fisheries, I maintain that a proper and systematic search for trawling grounds is absolutely essential. Till this is done he cannot for a moment pretend that we have endeavoured to foster them in any way. All the elaboration of your proposed Fisheries Acts, and all the details connected with the working of what may be called shore fishing, sink into nothingness when compared with the results which would follow the working of our deep-sea fisheries. I have already used the argument before, and do so again, and it is this: that if you were to take away from the old country her deep-sea fisheries, she would be practically without any fish supply.
Apparently it is imagined, too, that unless trawling grounds be discovered in the vicinity of Sydney or Melbourne, all efforts will be useless. But it will only be necessary to refer to the deep-sea fisheries elsewhere to at once set this objection aside. Some of the great trawling grounds in the North Sea are at such a distance from port that it would be quite impossible for any vessel to bring its own catch to market for disposal, for the fish would be utterly spoiled before it could be done. But the larger trawling boats go on cruises extending over weeks, and are constantly visited on the grounds by what are called “carriers,” i.e. steamers, who run their freights directly into market. The same thing is practised by the Dutch vessels, who fish in the neighbourhood of the Shetland Islands for weeks together. In the same way carrier vessels attend upon their fishing fleets, and carry off the take immediately to Holland. Being in possession of these facts, therefore, we must not be induced to believe that deep-sea fishing is not possible, simply because suitable grounds for trawling, &c., may not be actually within coo-ee of the Australian metropolitan centres.
There are one or two matters in connection with this subject which deserve having attention called to them. In the first place the method adopted in our Woolloomooloo Fish Market of placing the fish in little heaps on the floor itself, when put out for sale, is not satisfactory. In the Redfern Fish Market they are placed in small divisions or receptacles — each lot by itself — and raised above the floor, where they are protected from injury. In the new Melbourne Fish Markets, there are elevated platforms for the fish, and they are thus quite above the cemented floor. Not only are they prevented from being damaged, but it seems to me that the buyers have a better chance of seeing the fish when it is raised a little distance above their feet.
The size of the fish lots for sale in the Sydney and Melbourne Fish Markets varies, and this opens up a somewhat debatable point. with us the lots are comparatively small, both at the Woolloomooloo and at the Redfern Market; while at Melbourne, on the other hand, the lots are much larger. When the lots are small it gives private buyers a chance of purchasing (but how many private buyers are there before breakfast?), and is said in this way to raise the price for the dealers. But with the larger lots the latter are said to be able to buy to more advantage, and thus supply the public with cheaper fish. To say which is the better of the two plans is very much like being asked to solve the query in the story of “The Lady or the Tiger.”
But before leaving this matter I should like to refer briefly to the new markets in Flinders Street, Melbourne. They are called the City of Melbourne Meat, Fish, and Farm Produce Markets, and are most extensive in area. The viaduct which connects the two railway systems of Victoria pierces the very centre of these new markets. They are replete with every modern appliance for the storage and disposal of the food supply of a large city. There are numerous chambers for the frozen meat, and by means of what is called a “lock,” a whole train can be received into a long covered gallery. The two gates are then closed at either end, and the meat is thus received directly into the freezing chambers, without the slightest loss of any cold air. The fish and game are treated exactly in the same way, except that the receiving and delivery “locks” are not quite so large as in the former case. Still, there is just the same facility for their reception into the freezing chambers set apart for the purpose. The whole arrangements of these new fish markets are very perfect, and leave nothing to be desired.
This is one of the topics which is continually cropping up in connection with the fishing industry in Australia. It is noteworthy, too, that the middleman in some shape or form appears to be part of the system of fish selling in every part of the world. At Billingsgate, where they are termed “bummarees,” it is stated that they fulfil a useful office in that they act as distributors to the small costermongers, who could hardly get along without them. The “bummarees” watch the market and speculate accordingly, and it must be urged for them that they run great risks from the unexpected arrival of a large amount of fish with a consequent glut in the market. But the “bummarees” pure and simple are comparatively few. Their ranks, however, are swelled in the following way: A salesman, having disposed of his own fish, will “bummaree” for the sake of the possible profit, or a fishmonger, having purchased a double supply for a cheaper price, will “bummaree” half his purchase. In France the procedure is different. First of all there is an agent termed an ECOREUR, deputed by various persons and armed with purchasing power, who is ready to buy the fisherman’s catch at once. This simplifies matters wonderfully for the fisherman, who gets ready money and has no further bother. Next, from the ECOREUR the fish is bought by the MOREYEUR, or trader, who despatches it to Paris and the other large cities. Thus, so far, the fish, after leaving the fisherman, has passed through two hands, those of the ecoreur, and those of the MOREYEUR. After this it has to face a most unjust tax — the OCTROI— by which all provisions are specially taxed before entering the “barriers” of any French city or town. Hence the initiated, when travelling in France, often reside on the outskirts of a town, just outside the barrier, where the cost of living is reduced by one-third. On arriving at the markets the fish is publicly disposed of by the FACTEURS A LA CRIEE, or auctioneers, who of course are paid for their trouble. Lastly, it is bought for sale to the public by the POISSARDE, or fishwife. And thus we see from the time of leaving the water till finally it reaches the unfortunate public the fish has passed through no less than six levies, that by the fisherman, the agent, the trader, the OCTROI (I.E. the city toll or town due), the auctioneer, and, finally, that by the fishwife or costermonger.
Having thus explained the system pursued in England and in France respectively, it will be interesting to refer briefly to the different methods with regard to the disposal of fish practised in the Woolloomooloo, the Redfern, and the Melbourne Fish Markets. At the former, the sales are conducted by Mr. Richard Seymour, the inspector and auctioneer of the fish market — with other auctioneers — who act directly from the Sydney Municipal Council; the Redfern markets are conducted by the Messrs. Hudson; while in Melbourne there are licensed auctioneers, who pay for the privilege.
But to return to our middleman, upon whom the whole controversy centres. Indeed, the discussion over him in Melbourne, not so long ago, might be said to have reached to a white-heat phase. But the. premises on which the arguments were based were so hopelessly conflicting that it was impossible to logically settle the point. It was claimed, on the one hand, that the price the fishermen received was cruelly small in comparison with that which the public had to pay. On the other, the contention was that the price paid to the fishermen was fairly satisfactory, and that the public obtained comparatively cheap fish. We have seen, however, what takes place in other parts of the world, and, indeed, every one must admit that there is a remarkable difference between the price which the fisherman gets and that which the public have to pay. Between these two extremes there is an inordinate disparity, and the difficulty is to connect the two together — to bring to light the leakage — and to find out who is living both on the fisherman and the public at one and the same time. On this point a recent Fisheries Report of Victoria says:—“The solution of the very important question of providing a larger and cheaper fish supply for the masses rests mainly in the hands of the public. The present high prices are maintained in virtue of a monopoly which can be only successfully combated by the initiation of a healthy trade competition or a more open fish market. The fishermen, under existing auspices, reap but a small share of the retail produce of their takings, such being further reduced by the high rates for transport they are called upon to pay. In this last-named direction some relief might be afforded by the institution, if necessary by Act of Parliament, of a uniform tariff for the carriage of fish by road and rail throughout the colony.”
This brings me to one of the most difficult matters that has to be dealt with in considering the fish supply of any great city. For you may have the most extensive deep-sea fisheries, you may have the most rapid transit of the fish to town, and you may have the most commodious fish markets; but if you have no proper means of distributing the fish to the public the whole scheme falls to the ground. At present the system both in Sydney and in Melbourne is to have the one principal fish market (there are now two in Sydney, by the way), from which all supplies for the public are derived. Of course it is perfectly competent for the latter to obtain their purchases in the early morning at the time when the sales are conducted; but, on the other hand, the hour is exceedingly inconvenient, and, as a general rule, the lots are too large for the private buyer. Hence the distribution of fish depends almost wholly upon the costermonger or basket-man, who takes his fish round to the public. The basket-man, or costermonger, or dealer — call him what you will — is an indispensable personage, and what is more, he fills a most useful office. It is true that he is given to making strange outcries, and that he is at times boisterous in speech. Yet, notwithstanding these things, he is a valuable member of society, and personally I have a very great respect for him. Indeed, I am certain that he is the food-bearer to many homes, and people would otherwise be put to very great straits in obtaining their supplies. Our friend, however, has usually a long round to travel before he can make a good living, and perhaps he is unable to cope with the requirements of his large district.
It is on account of these difficulties, therefore, that I recognise the value of the French method of distribution, for besides the Halles Centrales, or principal markets, in Paris, there are in all nearly sixty local provision markets where it is possible to obtain, under cover — in all weathers and at any time — whatever is required. It is most desirable that something of this kind should be adopted in Australia. At least it is quite certain that every suburb should possess its own local market. This need not attempt to rival the central depot, but take rank as a local necessity.
This is naturally in intimate connection with the preceding, and it is very advisable to refer to it in order to direct attention to one or two matters. In the first place, I shall commence by saying that both Sydney and Melbourne are lamentably deficient in fishmongers’ shops similar to those which are so common in London. As a matter of fact, the show of fish exposed for sale is in striking contrast to that of meat. For in Sydney and suburbs alone the butchers’ establishments run to the number of nearly 600, while in the Melbourne metropolis they even exceed this. One has only to look through the directories of either Sydney or Melbourne, under the heading of “Fishmongers,” to see how few their numbers are. In our own city, Chinnery, of Hunter Street, and Matterson, of Pitt Street, make a highly creditable show, and in the southern capital, Jenkins, of Swanston Street, is well known for his excellent display. Otherwise the exhibition of fish for sale in either city is disappointing in the extreme, and is nothing less than an abject confession of our inability to develop our own natural resources.
There was formerly in Melbourne, however, a most admirable firm known as the Mutual Provedoring Company, whose premises were centrally situated near the main suburban railway station. Their show of fish was something to behold, and I do not remember to have seen it surpassed, even in the old country; and, in addition, they hit upon a very excellent device — one so good, in fact, that it is well worthy of imitation. That is to say they gave to every customer a capital fish cookery book, written, indeed, by our own Mrs. H. Wicken. It was a well-compiled production, and contained a goodly number of practical and economical recipes, having special regard to our Australian fish. In this way they did splendid work, as by means of the FISH DAINTIES (the title of the book) they popularised the use of fish. Now, it is greatly to be regretted that this firm no longer exists, because if ever there was a venture which deserved support, it was surely this. But I am no pessimist in these matters, and verily believe that before long this company, or one similar, will be in full swing again, and that the public will thereby benefit in every conceivable way. As far as Sydney is concerned there is a different state of affairs, and it is with genuine pleasure that I refer to the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Company, of whose enterprise and praiseworthy efforts I must express my sincere approbation. It is a good thing for the whole community that their endeavours have been crowned with such marked success; and I am very certain that, without any exaggeration whatever, one is justified in saying that this company have been of unmistakable service to their numerous customers, and that by their distribution of fish throughout New South Wales, quite a number of invalids, as well as of healthy people, have every reason to be grateful. Their exhibition of fish in King Street is at all times most satisfactory. Moreover, schnapper and other prime fish are often sold there as low as 4d. per lb., a price at which no one can complain.
Attention has been thus far entirely directed to the topic of fish, so that it now becomes necessary to turn to that of oysters. It will be found, however, that the actual state of affairs in connection with our oyster fisheries is not at all inspiriting. But before entering upon this matter it will perhaps lead to a better understanding of the whole question if some preliminary remarks are made upon the subject-heading. In doing so it will be most desirable to have recourse to an account given, not so long ago, by Professor Huxley — at that time Inspector of Fisheries — since he speaks with the weight of authority. Referring to the oysters in the old country, he says that during the summer and autumn months, from about May to September, according to varying circumstances, the oysters pass into a peculiar condition known to the fishermen under the name of “sick.” In this state the greater number contain a whitish substance, consisting of numberless granules held together by a sort of slime. The whole is known as “white spat,” and the numberless granules are really the oyster eggs. Slowly and slowly the interior of the eggs assumes a darkish hue, tinging the whole mass so much that it is then termed “black spat.” Within the space of a fortnight the mass of “black spat” breaks up, and the young oyster is set free.
Mr. Frank Buckland has been fortunate enough to actually see this taking place. The oyster appears to await its opportunity, it stealthily opens its shell, and a lot of spat looking like a dense cloud is ejected. After a minute or two another cloud appears, and this is continually repeated till the performance is concluded. Myriads of young oysters thus liberated from parental control now enter upon the free swimming or locomotive stage of their existence. That is to say they remain near the surface of the sea, although incessantly moving in every direction.
After a variable time, however, they suddenly descend and attach themselves to any suitable substance, on which they at once become distinctly visible in the form of white dots. In their restless stage they are scarcely discernible by the naked eye, but they settle down so rapidly and in such numbers that they appear to fall down through the water. This is known to oyster fishermen as a “fall of spat,” and we shall see that this fall of spat is an important occurrence, but that it varies greatly in different seasons.
In both New South Wales and Victoria the condition of affairs in connection with the oyster fisheries and the oyster yield is extremely discouraging. So much so, that unless something is done — and done quickly — we may have to rely mainly on outside resources for our supply. Even at the present time this is the case to a greater extent than most people have any idea of. In support of this statement, as far as New South Wales is concerned, it is only necessary to turn to the last Fisheries Report for the year ending 1890. There it is pointed out that in that year, notwithstanding the enormous length of our oyster-bearing foreshores, we are brought face to face with the fact that we are indebted to other colonies — New Zealand and Queensland — for TWO-THIRDS of our supply. Again, Mr. Lindsay Thompson, the chief inspector of New South Wales fisheries, in his recent official work, THE FISHERIES OF NEW SOUTH WALES, makes the following statements:— In the year 1871 no less than 93,000 bushels of oysters were obtained from the New South Wales beds, which, indeed, helped to supply the Victorian as well as our own needs; in the year 1883 there was a fall to 46,377 bushels; while in 1891 our fisheries yielded only 14,181 bushels. This is a very significant shrinkage, and shows a remarkable falling off in the winnings. It is still maintained by some, however, that there has been a succession of bad spatting years, and that the supply may yet reach to something of its old proportions.
It will be instructive, then, in this connection to refer briefly to the efforts which legislation has made to remedy matters in New South Wales. Under the old Oyster Beds Act of 1868 the areas given to lessees were somewhat large, and consequently what with the prolific natural supply, and a relatively small population, they appeared to be doing too well. It was urged, therefore, that the holdings should be more restricted in size, and that in this way a large number of small occupiers would be afforded a means of living, while at the same time these smaller areas would receive more attention. By the Fisheries Act of 1881 a new era dawned upon the oyster fisheries of this colony, and a system of licensing small holdings was initiated. Under this Act licensed dredging was permitted, but with such disastrous results that within two years a Fisheries Act Amendment Act had to be passed. What happened, in short, was that the beds were actually skinned, so that the total disappearance of the oyster was looming in the distance. But even the passing of this latter Act was powerless to check the evil, and by the Oyster Fisheries Act of 1884 (the present Act) there was a reversal to the old system of long leases and larger holdings. Even at the present time matters are far from perfect, and in the opinion of the Commissioners of Fisheries some radical change is necessary if oyster production is to have a place at all. Now, it is true that the present Act has checked the wholesale extermination of oysters on the part of licensed dredgers. But, unfortunately, in its passage through Parliament, some unhappy amendments totally altered the intention of the Bill. For instance, one clause makes it penal to remove oysters from a reserve or leased area without authority; but omits the protection of oysters on adjoining foreshores which may not be under lease at all; and it has accordingly happened that unprincipled persons have proceeded to rob the adjacent unleased beds of every single oyster they contained.
But while faulty and inoperative legislation may be responsible in part for the failure in our oysteries, it is certain that other causes must be at work to bring about such a disastrous result. And in the different annual reports on the fisheries of the colony this is attributed to various reasons. Thus at some places, between the Richmond and Port Macquarie, it has been set down to the presence of quantities of decomposing sea-weed on the oyster beds; in the Manning to deposits of mud and sand; and elsewhere again to the ravages of a small worm. Besides these causes, too, it has been ascribed to the long continued absence of floods, with a consequent increased salinity of the water — the latter being considered inimical to oyster life. In the opinion of scientific writers, water containing 3 per cent. of salt is most suitable for oyster development, water above that salinity being too strong, and that below it too weak. It has also been well pointed out by Mr. henry Woodward, in his admirable pamphlet on Oyster Culture in New South Wales, that most of our deep water beds are situated in the rivers, a little way from the sea. Under favourable circumstances there is just that commingling of the fresh water from the river and the salt water from the sea which produces the oyster to perfection. In times of drought, however, the salt water drives out the oysters from the deeper beds by reason of its greater density. On the other hand, the fresh water, being the lighter, floats at the top and enables the oysters to live in the shallower parts, by maintaining the required 3 per cent. of salinity. It is evident from this, that the lessees have acted in direct opposition to this natural law, for they have stripped the oysters from the shallow water, where they would have done well, and laid them down on the deep beds, where the increased percentage of salt water has proved too much for them.
Dr. James C. Cox, of Sydney, the President of the Fisheries Commission, and our best known authority on conchology, has contributed a very valuable paper upon “The Australian Oyster, its Cultivation and Destruction,” to the recent official work, THE FISHERIES OF NEW SOUTH WALES, already referred to. A brief summary of his views will, therefore, be full of interest. First of all, then, he separates oysters into three classes, namely, drift oysters, mud oysters, and rock oysters. Now, this classification must be clearly borne in mind, as it will the better enable the reader to understand what follows. He attributes the want of success in our oysteries to several causes, which have not been sufficiently heeded. One of these is that the oyster culturists have expected that the seed oysters which they obtained from between high and low water mark (rock oysters) would produce drift oysters if placed on beds on which drift oysters once throve in abundance. Dr. Cox maintains, however, that these two kinds of oysters, the rock oysters and the drift oysters, are quite different, and, as it will be seen, believes that they require different food. It can be well understood from this, then, that rock oysters will fail to grow on drift-oyster beds.
As to the mud oyster, he thinks very highly of it, and regrets that it has been so ignored by our oyster culturists. He is quite sure that if our mud oyster were cultivated and educated as it is now in Europe, it would be brought to the same perfection as the European and American oyster. It has been said of our mud oyster that it will not keep, and will not carry; but the same was said of its European representative until its cultivators came to discover that by a gradual process of raising it could be educated to keep quite long enough for all commercial purposes.
To come to the real point on which Dr. Cox considers that all oyster culture has failed in Australian waters. It is an established fact that the drift oyster and also the mud oyster require a diatomatic food for their existence. These two varieties of oysters no doubt consume other forms of food, but living diatoms constitute by far the greatest part. On the contrary, the rock oyster does not appear to need the diatomatic nutriment to sny extent, and is fed chiefly by larval forms of marine life. Thus, knowing that the drift and mud oysters require different food from the rock oyster, it is easy to see why our oyster culturists have failed in establishing new beds of oysters in various places. For the whole purport of Dr. Cox’s paper may be summarised into expressing his belief that sufficient attention has not been devoted to the replenishment of our natural beds, WITH THEIR OWN KIND.
In former days, when our drift and mud oysters were in their prime, there were many pools of naturally preserved fresh water — in fact, often very extensive lakes — on the banks of many of the estuaries and inlets running up into our rivers and creeks. Now, these reservoirs appear to have been constantly supplied by subaqueous springs of fresh water, and in consequence the supply of diatomatic food was abundant. It was abundant, because, as it is well known, diatomatic life depends for its existence, to a great extent, on the presence of fresh water. These collections of fresh water no longer exist, so that the diatomatic food supply is not forthcoming to maintain the drift and the mud oyster. But there are other additional causes for the disappearance of these latter. The surrounding ground has been cleared for agricultural purposes, and the earth, broken up by ploughing, has been washed into these estuaries, and has suffocated, as it were, the oysters in their natural position. Again, the water which flows over the oysters is continually being disturbed by the different steamers passing up and down. The stirred-up mud they create gets into the gills, and destroys the oysters.
From the preceding it will be seen that Mr. Cox is of opinion that the loss of diatomatic food is one of the principal causes in diminishing the supply of drift and mud oysters, and in addition he believes that this decrease has been also brought about by muddy water. Indeed, fairly clear water is absolutely necessary for their existence. On the contrary, water loaded with any sediment interferes with the functions of the oyster so much as to destroy it. In this way floods are considered to be beneficial, and even almost necessary, to proper oyster development; for they clear out the accumulations of mud, silt, and marine vegetable growth, thus giving the beds every chance. And further, Mr. Thomas Whitelegge, of the Australian Museum, has made some investigations into what is known as the “worm disease,” due to the POLYDORA CILIATA. It was commonly suppose that it was not the worm itself which was fatal, but that by boring through the shell it afforded entrance for the fine mud, which quickly destroyed the oyster. From the result of his researches, however, Mr. Whitelegge believes that the young worm simply swims into the open oyster, and that it immediately begins to construct a tube and collect a large quantity of mud. The worms appear to have the power of collecting a large quantity of mud in a very short time. The mud is covered over at once by the oyster with a thin layer of shelly matter, thus enveloping the worm, together with its mud. After this, one of two things happens: if the oyster be healthy, it envelops the worm and mud so quickly as to dispose of the intruder for good; but, on the other hand, if the oyster be unhealthy, or already infested, the shelly deposition is far slower, as a consequence of which the worm gains the ascendency, and the oyster succumbs.
In Victoria, too, the oyster fisheries are in a most unsatisfactory condition. According to Mr. Saville Kent, the author of THE GREAT BARRIER REEF OF AUSTRALIA and formerly Commissioner of Fisheries in several of the Australian colonies, and who is qualified to speak on these matters, the destruction of the oyster there has been brought about by sedimentary deposits, by parasitic growths, such as sponges, mussels, ascidians, and sea-weed; by the attacks of the dog-whelk and other natural enemies; and by their continual removal by human agency. He points out that there are the remains of magnificent natural beds in different parts, but that they are on the verge of ruin through neglect on the one hand and the invasion of poachers on the other. In short, he very plainly shows that unless active measures be taken for their general resuscitation and development, Victoria will have to look elsewhere for her oyster supply.
If one only looks to the conduct of some of those who have been engaged in our oyster fisheries, the reason for their present defective state will be readily apparent. The Fisheries Commissioners well express it when they state that “If a person takes up ground only for the purpose of collecting and selling whatever oysters he finds upon it, and bestows no care in providing for the continuity of the supply, that ground must cease to be productive.” And apart from this it will be found that even when every effort has been made to provide for continuous supply, yet the matter is by no means easy.
The truth is the oyster fisheries have been managed in a happy-go-lucky way. There has been but little care taken in their conservation, and the inevitable result is that the winnings, as the official figures show, are rapidly failing. The same thing is not peculiar to Australia, however, and has happened everywhere else where the same careless policy has been pursued. We have, then, a grain of comfort from the fact that it is not confined to us. In our own case the Fisheries Commissioners have repeatedly called attention to the need for certain legislative reform in connection with our oysteries. They assert, in fact, that “it is absolutely imperative that our oyster beds and deposits must be regulated on quite a different system to that which obtains under the existing law.”
Mr. Saville Kent, who has been investigating the cause of failure in connection with the oyster fisheries of Victoria, not so long ago, has made some interesting recommendations. The principle of his system is to establish on selected spots, in the neighbourhood of the formerly most productive natural oyster grounds, small Government reserves, whereon stocks of oysters shall be laid down and carefully cultivated for breeding purposes. He points out that the capacity of oysters for breeding is greatly augmented when they are collected together in a small space, in comparison with that of equal numbers thinly scattered over my extensive area. Each reserve in this way constitutes a prolific breeding centre for stocking the surrounding waters, and by this means alone the process of restoring the natural beds is quickly accelerated.
Indeed, he is particularly careful to draw attention to the fact that in the previously attempted establishment of artificial oyster fisheries a prominent error was in working too large areas. One or two acres intelligently cultivated can be made to produce far more substantial results than a very large area under inefficient management, and at much less expenditure of time and money. A vast amount of money has been expended in different localities on the Victorian coast for the purpose of developing the oyster fisheries. In the great majority of cases, however, the site selected was unsuitable for such a purpose, and the mode of culture adopted impracticable and inefficient. For instance, one place was the recipient of a vast amount of sedimentary deposits. Here he found that they had surrounded the chosen areas with fences of great height and strength, and closely wattled, for the purpose of catching and retaining the young oyster brood. Instead of this, however, they had simply acted as “catch-pits,” which had accumulated soft oozy mud to the depth of several feet, and a few dead oyster shells were the only result.
Instead of such an evident failure as this, he recommends oyster-spat collectors of two kinds, one consisting of extra thick split palings 4 ft. long by 8 in. wide, with a brick attached to each end to weigh them down, and at the same time to raise them off the ground. Several of them on being raised for inspection, after three months, were found to have over 1,000 embryo oysters adhering to them. The other form of spat collector he employs consists of cemented slates, arranged ridge-wise on light ti-tree frames, and in some localities these were found to be even more efficacious than the palings.
In the old country the same necessity for oyster culture is well recognised. In an interesting address given not so long ago, Professor Huxley, after referring to the growing scarcity of the bivalve, expressed his belief that the only hope for the oyster consumer was first in oyster culture, and secondly in discovering a means of breeding oysters under such conditions that all the spat was safely deposited. France has done more than any other country in the world in the artificial culture of the oyster. Not many years ago the oyster fisheries there were in danger of absolute extinction — a state of affairs brought about by reckless and unrestricted fishing, without any effort to provide for a re-supply. Mainly through the efforts of M. Coste, the propagation of oysters was scientifically carried out, with a result that has even exceeded the marvellous. According to a recent French official report, the Bay of Arcachon contained in the year 1807, 20 private PARCS, or district oyster beds. In the year 1865 these had increased to the number of 297, with an output of 10,000,000 oysters. In the year 1887, the area under cultivation in the same bay amounted to 15,000 acres, and produced 300,000,000 oysters. In addition to this, a still later report attributes the present flourishing condition of this industry “to the steps primarily initiated by the Government, and to the necessity of upholding this success by continuing the same system of administrative supervision, together with the practical illustration in the Government model PARCS of the most perfected methods of oyster culture, for the benefit of private cultivators.”
And lastly, if we require further evidence in support of the necessity for ostreiculture, we have only to turn to America. A falling off in the supply led to an inquiry into the cause by the United States Fish Commission. Professor Goode, in his review of the work accomplished by this body, writes, INTER ALIA:—“The important distinction between the extermination of a species and the destruction of a fishery should be noted. In the case of fixed animals like the sponge, the mussel, and the oyster, the colonies or beds may be practically exterminated, exactly as a forest may be cut down. The preservation of the oyster beds is a matter of vital importance to the United States, for oyster fishing unsupported by oyster culture will, within a short period, destroy the employment of tens of thousands, and the cheap and favourite food of tens of millions.” “Something,” the professor proceeds to say, “may be effected by laws which allow each oyster bed to rest for a period of years after each season of fishing upon it. It is the general belief, however, that shell-fish beds must be cultivated as carefully as garden beds, and that this can only be done by leasing them to individuals. It is probable that the present unregulated methods will prevail until the dredging of the natural beds ceases to be remunerative, and that the oyster industry will then be transferred from the improvident fisherman to the care-taking oyster-culturists.” We are thus led to the inevitable conclusion that if our Australian oyster fisheries are to be re-created, it will be necessary to follow in the same lines. With that object in view, therefore, it will be needful to devise suitable legislative enactments to protect our oyster fisheries and to foster ostreiculture at the same time. We must benefit, in short, by the experience derived from other parts of the world where ostreiculture has been carried to a state of absolute perfection.
In the first place I shall begin by affirming that it would be a difficult matter indeed to say too much in favour of the oyster. It is as highly appreciated at the present day as it was by the Romans hundreds of years ago, and it is certain that in centuries to come it will be found occupying a similar unrivalled position. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that it is not every person who cares for the oyster, showing that there are various forms of affliction; and we find, accordingly, that there is no half-heartedness about the like or dislike for the oyster — it is either held in the loftiest admiration, or looked upon almost with repugnance. It is both food for the sick-room and food for the strong man. It is one of the most valuable forms of nourishment for the growing child, and it gives strength to those of declining years. It is specially appropriate for the brain worker, and yet it is deservedly in great repute with the muscle user — whether athlete or artisan. It is the opening ceremony at our feasts, while it reigns supreme at supper. In short, there is everything to be said for it, while not a single word can be urged against it.
But if it is thus so highly appreciated in health, it is in disease that it is at its best; for here it occupies a place which nothing else can fill. Indeed, after many cases of acute or serious illness, the oyster is one of the first things which the patient looks for. In many chronic disorders, too, it is absolutely without a rival. Thus, in anaemia, where the blood is so poor, it restores the strength; in bronchitis and other chest diseases it helps to relieve the loaded tubes of phlegm; in consumption and similar wasting maladies it conserves the vital powers; in debility it creates new force; in indigestion it is often digestible when all else is indigestible; in nervous disease it renews the nervous energy. The list, in fact, might be multiplied indefinitely, but enough has been instanced to prove the value of the oyster. It should be added, in conclusion, that it is best eaten raw, with its juice, which is its blood mixed with sea-water. A squeeze of lemon is generally employed to bring out its flavour, and, for those who are not invalids, a sensation of cayenne pepper is distinctly an improvement.
Along with its great ally, the oyster, fish undoubtedly occupies one of the highest places on the food list. Unfortunately, it is not met with in every home as it should be, its high price and scarcity combining to make it conspicuous by its absence. That such a state of things is actually the case in Australia can only be deeply deplored. Let us suppose, for instance, that we were as well supplied with fish as we are entitled to be, considering that we are of a maritime race and that we live near the sea. If such were the case — and I would it were so — how would a sudden reversal to the present state of our fish supply be received? Would it not give rise to protestations, to indignation meetings, to questionings in the House, and to the papers being filled with complaints, till matters were put right again? Yes, indeed, all these things would happen! meanwhile, however, we continue placidly in our fishless state of existence, and the finny tribe, outside in the deep sea, have a good time in consequence.
It may seem of little use, therefore, to call attention to the value of fish when we are practically bereft of it. But as some improvement may come about in course of time, the attempt will not be altogether thrown away. First of all, then, it is worthy of note that in the old country that advocate for rational feeding, Sir Henry Thompson, has recently expressed his opinion that a large proportion of the town population would profit by exchanging some of their meat, as an article of daily diet, for fish. He further adds that the digestive system is apt to become overloaded and oppressed by meals consisting chiefly of meat, and that many a constitution suffers from an over-supply in this way, which cannot be remedied without a considerable amount of exercise. That being the case in the old country, with its cold, damp climate, these facts are intensified a thousandfold when they are applied to our semi-tropical existence. Dr. T. K. Chambers, also, another authority on all that pertains to diet, is an advocate for a more general use of fish in our daily life; and, as he sagely observes, every sort is best when it is cheapest, for it is then most plentiful and in fullest season. Then, again, we have Dr. F.W. Pavy, who is well qualified to speak on these matters, observing that fish is an important article of food. For, as he proceeds to point out, the health and vigour of the inhabitants of the fishing towns, where fish may form the only kind of animal food consumed, show that it is capable of contributing, in an effective manner, to the maintenance of the body under active conditions of life. Dr. Horace Dobell, too, tells us how nearly fish represents in food value as equal weight of meat, and how important it is to other forms of animal food as a mixed diet. Indeed, it would be possible to adduce similar statements to an indefinite extent, but my main object in making these references is to call attention to the value of fish as ordinary diet. And although it hae an every-day value of this kind, there are in addition certain qualities ascribed to fish which render it particularly appropriate for a large and important section of our population.
I refer to the brain workers. I say large and important, because in their ranks are to be found literary men and journalists, members of the professions, active-minded, busy men of the commercial world, and the vast array of those having mental work and clerical occupations. In one of the latest books on the subject of food and diet by Dr. Burney Yeo, he remarks that it is the custom to speak of fish as an “intellectual” or “brain” food, on account of the phosphorus contained in it. But he adds that much of its reputation in this respect may be due to its being readily digested by persons of sedentary and studious habits. He proceeds to quote Louis Agassiz, the famous naturalist, who bestows upon fish the following:—“Refreshing to the organism, especially for intellectual labour; not that its use can turn an idiot into a wise or witty man, but a fish diet cannot be otherwise than favourable to brain development.”
But if fish is thus a necessary and desirable element in the dietary of our active daily life, it is not to be forgotten that it is at least equally valuable for the invalid. It is often tolerated by the stomach when the digestive powers are weakened from any cause. When the system is recruiting after any exhausting illness, it is usually amongst the earliest forms of nourishment allowed. In many chronic disorders, likewise, it is just one of those things whose place it would be impossible to fill. And, lastly, it should be ever remembered that many men whose lives are passed in a state of perfect thraldom by reason of their extravagant use of butcher’s meat would find themselves better in health, better in spirits, and better in temper, were they to curtail their allowance, substituting fish in its place.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53