For me, this tale began to unfold three years ago when, one 4.30am wake-up call later, I found myself being swallowed whole by a tuna auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, the biggest and busiest fish market in the world. Chaotic? Very. But exhilarating, too – and that was even before I’d cottoned on to the fact that some of the frost-licked tuna being bought and sold had travelled frozen, by boat, all the way from Port Lincoln in South Australia.
And it’s there, back in the late 1950s and early ’60s that this story really, truly begins. Today, Lincoln, as it’s known to the locals, is a fishing city rather than town, situated at the heart of the Eyre Peninsula where more than 60 per cent of the country’s seafood is produced and sourced. At least one in seven of Port Lincoln’s 14,000 residents are employed by the $260 million fish industry alone. Second-generation fisherman Rick Kolega is one of them. With his three brothers, he runs Sekol Farmed Tuna, the family-owned fishing operation founded by his father Darislav more than 45 years ago.
Like many of Lincoln’s tuna fishermen, Darislav arrived in Australia from Croatia in the early ’60s having fled Kali, a small yet well-known fishing village on the Dalmatian Coast. 'Dad was a fisherman in Kali, too – most men were. When he was in his 20s, there were a lot of disgruntled people in what was then old Yugoslavia, but to leave, you had to escape," he says. So, with Rick’s mother Fina and his older brother, who was just a baby at the time, Darislav boarded a ship in the middle of the night and, with 49 others, sailed to Italy as a refugee. After a few years living in Europe, he had secured his family’s passage to Australia. "I was two years old when we arrived," says Rick. 'Dad knew a man from Kali who was living in Port Lincoln, so that was where we headed."
It turned out he wasn’t alone, with many of the founding families behind Port Lincoln’s substantial Croatian community also originating from that same small fishing village. 'Even more remarkable is that at least a dozen of the people who were on the same boat out of Croatia as my parents, including my aunty and uncle, with whom Dad bought his first fishing boat, eventually came to Port Lincoln," says Rick.
Drawn together perhaps by shared memories of the country and culture they’d left behind, or perhaps by a desire to forge something new, Rick recollects a strong sense of community among the Croatian immigrants who chose to settle in Port Lincoln. 'They were all very close. Memories from my childhood are filled with gatherings and big parties, with lots of singing and late nights, and there was always a pig being cooked up for some celebration or other.
"My old man would bring fish home every night, often tuna, and we’d cook it up. Like most of the older-generation Croatians here in Lincoln, my mum and dad, both in their 80s, still eat fish every day. It’s usually red mullet cooked whole on the barbecue for lunch, which is a very Croatian dish and style of cooking. As a community, we still come together to celebrate and commemorate things – the Croatian heritage is in our blood," he says.
And it’s that which inspired Rick and his brothers, including Aldo who skippers Fina-K (a tuna boat named after his mother), to take over the business when Darislav retired 15 years ago. 'Dad was one of the first Croatian tuna fishermen here in Lincoln, so we have a heritage to uphold, a responsibility to help keep the history alive."
In truth, the Croatians weren’t the first to fish for tuna in Port Lincoln. Along with one or two others, Australian-born Italian Joe Puglisi came before them. Another second-generation fisherman, he started his fishing career at age 13 when he spent a seven-year stint living aboard a boat. He eventually moved his tuna fishing ambitions from Ulladulla in NSW to Port Lincoln as a 21-year-old in 1959. He remembers when the first Croatians arrived there a few years later. 'They were good workers and very fine fishermen who saw an opportunity here. They worked bloody hard to achieve what they did – we all did," he says. Although Joe no longer owns any of the festively coloured fishing vessels that line Lincoln Cove Marina, having sold his stake in the tuna business in 2001, he is still very much involved in all its happenings.
Years ago, he and five of Lincoln’s 'original' and most successful tuna fishermen, including German-born Hagen Stehr and Croatians Sam Sarin and Tony Šanti, owner of triple Melbourne-Cup winner Makybe Diva, formed what they called the 'cappuccino club". They still meet every Thursday for coffee. I ask him whether fish is still the main topic of conversation: 'Well at my age, it’s not women! Yes, it’s always about the tuna. I still spend a lot of my time talking and thinking about tuna. A lot of decisions are made over a plate of something for lunch at someone’s house."
Fittingly, unlike my first glimpse of southern bluefin tuna, my first taste happens not in Tokyo, Japan, but in Port Lincoln, courtesy of celebrated local chef Tony Ford at Boston Bay Wines, a beautiful vineyard perched just on the edge of town overlooking the water. Tony treats me to a selection of dishes made with locally caught seafood, including poached prawns, charred squid and beer-battered Australian herring, but it’s the tuna, sashimi-style and encrusted with sesame seeds, that wins my taste buds’ affections.
Rick tells me that its buttery, melt-in-the-mouth texture – which sets it head and scales apart from any other tuna I’ve tasted – is due to the fish’s superior fat content. "Our tuna are fed intensively for five months, so the meat is very oily and that’s what makes it so perfect for sashimi," he says. It also explains its popularity in Japan where as much as 95 per cent of the tuna caught in Port Lincoln winds up.
The reason that Lincoln’s fishermen can feed their tuna for five months? Because catching them has evolved from the traditional fishing pole that was used until the late ’80s to a form of ranching. Between December and March each year, a specific number of 15kg-tuna are netted in the Great Australian Bight off the south coast of Australia, and then guided back to Port Lincoln where they are kept in holding pens and fed pilchards twice a day. They put on roughly 30kg of weight over the five-month period.
It was Joe who pioneered the farming technique commercially in 1991. "People thought we were crazy, but I knew it could work and besides, it was a case of survival," he says. A combination of falling fish numbers and quotas meant Joe’s business, like many others, was in receivership. 'If we hadn’t done it, we would have been finished. It changed the industry forever," he says.
In return, tuna has helped transform Port Lincoln’s fortunes and appeal as a holiday destination. Businesses catering to tourists have sprung up, including those that allow you to swim with tuna and water-based tours that explain the industry’s fascinating and intricate history. The annual Tunarama Festival, which began in 1962 to promote a then-emerging tuna industry – and celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – is now touted as one of South Australia’s biggest and most popular free events.
The tuna fishing industry itself is continuing to evolve, too. Hagen Stehr’s son Marcus started fishing when he was just five years old, and spent six weeks of his Christmas holiday every year aboard a tuna boat. Today, he’s managing director of Clean Seas, which is committed to producing sustainable seafood and focuses on three breeds, including the prized southern bluefin tuna. One of their most ambitious projects is centred around the race to farm this fish on a commercial scale. "With all of the global pressures on the tuna resource, and what’s happening around the world in terms of environmental and sustainability issues, aquaculture will be a significant step moving forward," says Marcus, "and we want to achieve it here in Port Lincoln." Having already managed to successfully tank-breed kingfish, in 2009, Clean Seas was finally able to get the southern bluefin tuna to spawn in captivity, closing the life cycle. This 'tank-bred tuna’ was named as one of TIME magazine’s "Best Inventions of 2009". The next step, according to Marcus, is to do it on a big, long-lasting and profitable scale. "That’s the dream, the holy grail," he says. 'We’re about to put a few thousand fingerlings, or baby tuna, into the water, so I believe we’re right on the cusp. Hopefully this year will truly be the start of things to come." Fins crossed.
Not surprisingly, seafood is a menu favourite in Port Lincoln and for good reason. Sarin’s Bar and Restaurant (1 Lincoln Hwy, (08) 8621 2000, portlincolnhotel.com.au/sarin-s) has an impressive selection, including the notoriously supersized Coffin Bay Oyster Farm’s King Oysters at $100 a pop. Del Giorno’s Cafe Restaurant (80 Tasman Tce, (08) 8683 0577, delgiornos.com.au) serves award-winning food in a relaxed atmosphere, which turns alfresco in summer – just make sure you book as it fills up fast. Boston Bay Wines (Lincoln Hwy, (08) 8684 3600, bostonbaywines.com.au) offers catering for events and special occasions, and their cellar door is open for wine tastings from midday, seven days a week.
With views over Boston Bay, Port Lincoln Hotel (1 Lincoln Hwy, (08) 8621 2000, portlincolnhotel.com.au) provides 4.5-star accommodation and the ideal location from which to explore the city. For something more boutique, head inland to Colebrook (Charlton Gully Rd, Charlton Gully via Port Lincoln, 0447 718 804, colebrook.com.au), a luxury, four-bedroom, handcrafted log home.
Adventure Bay Charters (2 Jubilee Dr, (08) 8682 2979, adventurebaycharters.com.au) run two-hour ‘Swim with the Tuna’ experiences, complete with an underwater viewing tunnel and hand-feeding opportunities, if you don’t fancy getting wet. To visit a working tuna farm and learn more about the industry, book a tour with Triple Bay Charters ((08) 8682 4119, triplebaycharters.net.au) – you’ll also get to taste fresh southern bluefin tuna sashimi. The annual Tunarama Festival (tunarama.net) is traditionally held over the Australia Day long weekend in January; it features a host of events, including a tuna toss!
Photography Katie Kaars.