Sardines from the Northern Territory bringing ‘a taste of Italy’ to the Top End
The Northern Territory is famous for its big barramundi, but it is the humble sardine that excites Biagio Spinella the most.
- Biagio and Nina Spinella have built up the Northern Territory’s only commercial sardine fishery over the past 25 years
- Some of the sardines go to local restaurants, but most is used for bait
- The company hopes to expand its markets but competition from cheap imports makes it tough
Mr Spinella and his wife, Nina, are the founders of Austop Fisheries in Darwin — the only commercial sardine fishers in the Territory.
It is a fishery they have proudly developed over the past 25 years.
Speaking to ABC Rural while unloading 40 tonne at the Darwin wharf, Mr Spinella said it had been a long journey.
“When I started fishing for shark and mackerel in the early days, we noticed the sardines swimming underneath the boat.
“We went to the fisheries department and asked them for a development licence and told them our plans.
“At the beginning we faced a lot of problems because we’d never done it before, but we eventually got all the right gear and equipment together and can now catch up to 10 tonnes a day.”
The sardines are caught at night using lights and nets, and are sold into restaurants and bait shops across the north.
“We only do a shipment like this once or twice a year. We just don’t have the markets to absorb more fish,” Mr Spinella said.
“All of these sardines are eating quality and [can] get bought by restaurants, but most of it goes to bait.
Austop Fisheries catches a range of small pelagic fish in the Timor Sea, including mouth mackerel, gold-striped sardine and small spotted sardine — which is similar to a pilchard.
Sardines a taste of Italy
Originally from Naples, Alessandro Bellomunno came to the Northern Territory six years ago and now runs an authentic Italian restaurant in Darwin.
“In the beginning when we opened this restaurant, we did pastry and coffee, but then we started to do breakfasts and the first thing I wanted was something really unique from Naples, which is seafood,” he said.
“My parents are from the Amalfi Coast and my aunty used to do these beautiful marinated sardines every year for the family.
“I came across these NT sardines from Nina and Biagio, and everybody started going crazy for them.”
Mr Bellomunno said for him, the sardines “taste like home”.
“There’s no barramundi in Italy. We wanted something to remind me of home, to remind people of Italy and these sardines are just so fresh,” he said.
“Sometimes when you marinate seafood, the flavour can overpower the fish. But with this, you can still feel the seafood and the freshness.
Imports a concern
Mr Spinella said the health of the NT’s sardine fishery was excellent.
“We could catch a lot more if we wanted, but we’re only catching what we can sell,” he said.
He said competing against imported sardines was an ongoing challenge.
“These are a low-value product. They’re quite abundant around the world, and some other countries with cheaper labour are able to catch them for a fraction of the price,” he said.
“So we just target some niche markets that want and appreciate our quality and our local product.”
Mr Spinella said there were some serious implications to Australia’s reliance on sardine imports.
“The dangerous thing about importing bait fish like sardines is the high biosecurity risk,” he said.
“This imported stuff has the potential to bring a disease in and destroy a fishery overnight. Just look at what happened with white spot disease and the prawn farms in Queensland.
“A lot of this imported product is labelled for human consumption only, but people don’t realise that. They buy it and use it as bait, and it’s dangerous to put in the water.”
Mr Spinella often talks about retiring, but seems lured to the sea for good.
Looking back at his years of fishing, he said the sardine fishery had given him a lot of satisfaction.
“It’s a real buzz to be able to develop this sardine fishery and make it work,” he told ABC Rural.
“I hope in the coming years we can produce up to 2,000 tonnes of this product, and that everyone can try some.”