Justin North
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

An ecological responsibility

Mulataga founder Dennis Gaunt grew up in Geraldton, a few hundred kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia. ‘From an early age I was inducted into the fishing industry,’ he says. As the years passed, Gaunt noticed the numbers of shellfish in the sea dropping and in the early 1980s decided to investigate the dwindling viability of aquaculture in the state. To an (at the time) unenthusiastic audience, Gaunt pitched his ideas about assisted regeneration in our oceans. With a balance between ecological responsibility and business sense (‘We’re green but we’re also pragmatic: we’ve got to live and eat’), Gaunt approaches fishing with what he calls an ‘environmental underlay’.

The company’s name was selected from an Aboriginal dictionary. ‘Moolataga’ roughly translates as ‘ancient or Dreamtime river fish’. The name was eventually adapted to ‘Mulataga’, with origins from the Noongyar tribe from the south-west of Western Australia.

When he first established the business, Gaunt decided to farm yabbies rather than saltwater crustacea, as the privately owned dams made easier work than government-controlled public waterways. The business was one of the first to tap into the yabby market – now a huge source of revenue for Australia. ‘That was the beginning of [Mulataga’s] drive into aquaculture,’ he says. The company now collaborates with the Fisheries Department on research and development projects, in particular learning more about the growth cycles of the crystal crab.

Today Mulataga operates fishing vessels from Broome and Lake Argyle to the Rainbow Coast (stretching across the south-west corner of Western Australia from Cape Leeuwin to Esperance) spanning a distance of more than 800 kilometres by road. The hostile West Australian coastline is home to many species that over the years have become Mulataga’s specialties.

Mulataga’s headquarters and packing factory are situated at the end of the runway at Perth International Airport. Live shellfish are purged in holding tanks (at the same temperature as the water they were found in) to cleanse them of dirt, excrement or sand, and are then packaged for live shipment to restaurants around the globe. In holding rooms live marron and yabbies are held at a chilled temperature to slow their heartbeat and minimise distress.

From tasmanian ferry to albany fishing vessel

The Roy Larsson, one of Mulataga’s fishing craft, is based in Albany, on the coast of southern Western Australia. Starting out its life as a Tasmanian fisher and ferry, the boat now ventures out on trips ranging from two to ten days, depending on weather and haul. Designed for heavy weather, it has a steel frame and upper wheelhouse where the skipper sits. Storms can be violent in this region and with these features the Roy Larsson is better equipped than most boats. ‘For this kind of work and in this area,’ Dennis Gaunt explains of the Rainbow Coast, ‘you need a vessel and people with character’. It is hard and dangerous work.

The crew of Roy Larsson take her up to 50 kilometres offshore to retrieve the crayfish pots planted around the sea floor. The catch can vary between 20 and 200 shellfish per trip, and is stored in a saltwater-filled hold beneath the lower deck of the boat. Before the crew shift the catch to the storage area, they clamp the crustacea’s claws; a king crab is capable of lopping off a human finger in a second.

Every catch is logged, including the depth at which each species of shellfish was found, and latitude and longitude bearings. Each species has a restriction on minimum weight or length, set by the Department of Fisheries, and must be returned to the ocean should they not meet these standards, keeping the ocean’s stores at healthy levels.

The marron farm

Ken Court lives at ‘Yarrabah’, a 200-hectare property about 45 minutes south-east of Perth. The name ‘Yarrabah’ is from the Aboriginal language, derived from ‘the running water’ (yarra) and the ‘red gums’ (bah) of the area. Court’s farm features 34 dams, each devoted to the cultivation of marron. These resilient creatures are well suited to the area with its healthy rainfall.

Marron moult and are at their most vulnerable during the summer months. The plated armour that protects the marron’s vital organs is shed, revealing a soft skin that is slowly replaced with hard armour that grows again over a few months. For this reason marron are harvested during the winter, when they are more hardy.

They are kept at Yarrabah until they are about two-and-a-half years old, and at a weight of roughly 250 grams. Marron can, however, grow up to 500 grams. The farm harvests about 30,000 marron annually. They are fed on a diet of pilchards and blue mackerel, and a low-protein grain that supplements the natural food source in the dam – the grasses growing at its edge that make up three-quarters of the marron’s feed. With a fully developed hard shell, marron are tough creatures and can survive out of water for some time. ‘They’re bulletproof,’ Court claims. ‘They’ll walk across a paddock.’

Harvesting is literally a case of pulling the plug on the dams and allowing gravity to do its work. Over the course of a week, as the water level gradually goes down, the marron gather in the deeper end of the dam. Then the water is drained more briskly and each crustacean is automatically guided into a piece of plastic pipe, through which they rocket downhill into a grading facility. After being graded the marron are purged for five or six days, ready for the Mulataga pick-up.

The yabby farm

Husband and wife team Cocky and Judy Roberts have been farming yabbies for fifteen years. They were among the original suppliers of Mulataga yabbies and have a depot on their property, collecting and purging yabbies from surrounding local yabby farms.

The yabby season runs year-round. Traps are set using a piece of oily fish (often a sardine or mackerel) as bait, and the yabbies fall into a rectangular trap. To maximise numbers, the traps usually sit for at least 24 hours before they are pulled in by a length of string and the yabbies collected.

A rather crude device acts as a grading system. A shallow plastic box with slats as a base is filled with the yabbies collected in the traps. Those that fall through the spaces between the slats are returned to the dam; those that remain are deemed large enough for harvest. The company has devised cooling and transportation systems to keep the crustacea as calm as possible during transport.

King marron (Cherax tenuimanus)

Reaching a maximum body length of around 18 centimetres (closer to 40 centimetres when including the claws), marron thrive on the sandy bottom of deep rivers. Although native to Western Australia, there are species found in New South Wales and South Australia. When cooked, the flesh is moist and firm.

Yabby (Cherax albidus)

Yabbies are resilient creatures that can survive out of water for days. Yabbies are smaller than marron and the flesh is sweet and held in high regard by chefs. In its natural environment, the yabby is found in slow-flowing water to a depth of five metres. More are farmed in Western Australia than in any other Australian state or territory.

Golden or crystal crab (Chaceon bicolor)

Also known as the ‘golden lucky crab’ and the ‘Australian deep-sea crystal crab’, the golden crab is found in deep oceans (up to 1000 metres in depth) and is abundant just off the continental shelf of Western Australia. This crab can vary from a weight of about 600 grams to three kilograms, and is popular for its sweet flavour. The shell is thin, making it easy to prepare, and it has a high meat yield of about 36 per cent.

Giant ‘king’ crab (Pseudocarcinus gigas)

A deepwater species, the giant crab (known as the ‘giant Tasmanian crab’ or ‘giant deepwater crab’) is prized for its delicate, sweet flavour and tender texture. This species is the largest found in Australian waters and is the world’s heaviest. It can reach 45 centimetres across its carapace (body diameter minus the claws) and a weight of more than 17 kilograms. It is slow growing and long-living, and numbers have dwindled as a result of waters being overfished.

Champagne crab (Hypothalassia armata)

This species is found all around the eastern and southern coastlines of Australia: spanning southward from Mackay in Queensland and up to Port Hedland in Western Australia, in waters 30 to 540 metres in depth. At 15 centimetres across the carapace, the champagne crab is not big, but is in constant demand for its delicate flavour.

Red pearl crab (Maia squinado)

Commonly known as the ‘spider crab’, the red pearl crab is easily identifiable by the brilliant-red textured bubbles on its carapace and legs. The spider crab family have eight legs on their body, in addition to the pincers. The sweet, smoothly textured meat makes this a favourite.

Recipes in this Chapter

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