Adding value helps Kinkawooka Shellfish conquer tyranny of distance

By / 30th of December, 2014
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LOOKING around the fisheries of Port Lincoln in South Australia, it's hard to find one that's not accredited as sustainable or working towards it.

It's also hard to find one that the Puglisi family doesn't have a hand in. Originally from Southern Italy, they migrated to Australia and begun a long and storied career in fishing.

"It took my mum about five years to forgive my father for dragging her away from New South Wales where I was born, a really beautiful part of the world, and dragging her down here to the desert - well not desert, but not far from it," says Andrew Puglisi, sixth generation fisherman and Managing Director of Kinkawooka Mussels.

His father Bob and uncle Joe both had a hand in the pioneering Southern Bluefin Tuna and Spencer Gulf Prawn fisheries around Port Lincoln.

Tuna quotas have been levelling out to a sustainable level in recent years and the Spencer Gulf Prawn industry has recently received Marine Stewardship Council certification for their sustainable management of stocks and by catch.

"It's just innovative fishing. It wasn't the European mentality back then, that's for sure. Those guys just catch 'em, and if they run out, they'll find something else to catch. That idea didn't wash with these guys, my father and the original fishermen in this area."

It's a feature of most the sustainably accredited fisheries, including the Spencer Gulf Prawn industry, that they don't have to change much of their operations to tick the accreditation boxes.

This historically comes down to two things, Puglisi says. One are the long standing gentleman's agreements required in a fishing town with such a diverse catch; not stepping on the toes of the fishermen next to you.

The other is the ability, long held by the local fishermen in Port Lincoln, to critically look at the peaks and troughs of catch rates and realise that the long-term benefit of a stable catch is much better than the short-term gains of over catching.

"That's the sort of thing I'm really passionate about. We've got a fantastic product at Kinkawooka Mussels, and there's a clean and green element to what we do, which is really important."

Right now, Kinkawooka produces up to 20 per cent of Australia's fresh, live mussels in their factory, located a short way from the water's edge. They're accredited for sustainability by Friends of the Sea.

Around 80 per cent of their product is sold domestically, in just about every capital city of Australia except for Hobart. The rest is exported to Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and China.

When the Puglisi family founded their farms in Boston Bay near Port Lincoln in 1999, Kinkawooka originally sold their rope grown mussels in commodity form.

"What we started with was what everyone else had already. Commodity form was just harvested, cleaned on the boat in a very rudimentary form, dropping them in a box and sending them to market.

"For me to grow, I needed to differentiate myself in the marketplace. I've done that by value adding to the product by scrubbing it, cleaning it and pulling the beard out, so it's a pot ready product. There's no work required for the end user."

It's a method of production that requires a lot more work, but one that seems to have paid off for Puglisi; at least according to him, restaurateurs and high-end home cooks will approach wholesalers or the store asking for Kinkawooka Mussels.

One of the boons for Puglisi so far has been the uptake of Australia's opinion makers. His mussels are on the menu of acclaimed chef Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne.

"In the scheme of things, we're never going to get rich on the volumes that the Neil Perrys of the world are using, but they are the opinion makers.

"On my own experience, if he says it's good I'll rate it. And I'm not going to think twice. I do it, and a lot of people do it."

Flavour is king in the restaurant world, and this is where Kinkawooka stands out according to Puglisi.

"We look pretty closely at our strengths. Our best mussels are the smaller, sweeter mussels. Ours are sweeter than they are on the east coast. It's something different that we get that they don't - not saying theirs are any worse for it."

Kinkawooka begins its production in June and July, naturally collecting mussels as they spawn. They hang up to a hundred thousand metres of rope in the water to collect the juvenile spat.

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A hefty mussel rope.

This collects around two to six thousand mussels per metre of rope - far too many for the environment in Boston Bay to sustain. They're thinned out to around 300 per metre, which means less mouths to feed, and more uniform and faster growth.

"They'll grow to the size of your thumbnail in five months. They'll grow to a harvestable size of 60 to 65 millimetres in the five months after that. It's exponential."

The harvest starts at about 2 o'clock in the morning. Kinkawooka's boats harvest a full load in under four hours and bring them back to the processing facility.

The factory comes to life from eight in the morning. The mussels are cleaned, de-bearded and packed in two hours, ready for the overnight truck to Adelaide and beyond.

The biggest problem that Kinkawooka faces in their process is debearding the mussel, which can create a lot of stress. It doesn't kill the mussel, but when stressed they can open, dropping their water which contains the oxygen and nutrients needed to sustain the shellfish.

"That shortens the shelf life of the animal. So we drop it in a cool bath to reduce the stress."

The factory produces a tonne of mussels per hour. After they're shipped overnight to Adelaide, they're either put on another overnight truck to major cities like Melbourne or Sydney, or flown direct to Singapore or beyond - which physically receive their mussels before the rest of Australia.

"One of my biggest costs is freight. It's very remote here. That's part of our strength, but our biggest issue is just the tyranny of distance, getting our fish to market."

Kinkawooka's customers will typically receive their mussels with a seven to eight day shelf life, down from the ten or so days they give them fresh from the factory.

"The beauty of having it in the bag, it got ourselves a margin of the market share that we weren't able to obtain in the traditional form. But it's a double-edged sword of course. Your brand is on the bag.

"We put a massive amount of QA in to what our production is, on the water, in the factory here, a lot more than any other factory in Australia.

"We haven't reinvented the wheel. We've gone to other parts of the world such as Europe and New Zealand looked at best practice there. We've brought those ideas back here and adapted them to work with our fishery."

As the first mussel factory in Australia of its kind and it’s live packaging innovations have been adopted by the pipi industry in Goolwa, in the south of the state.