Fish handling IV: ice brining
  |  First Published: May 2016

Welcome to the fourth and final part of the fish handling series. This month we take you through a critical and concluding step to sophisticated handling. I guarantee you will be taking home premium quality product for the dinner table!

Experts have identified that there is an inexpensive and easier way to handle fish and avoid damaging them. These include; selecting an appropriate landing surface to eliminate flipping, wearing a cotton glove to your bait hand to effectively control your catch, and using ike jime (lethal brain spike) as a killing method.

In this series, I have shared techniques I learned during seasons working aboard a professional wet liner off the west coast of Australia. At the time, we were being paid more money per kilo for our catch on the Tokyo fish market auction floors than any other boat in Australia and New Zealand. This ongoing result can only be attributable to the diligent and respectful way the skipper insisted we maintain our procedures.

The next phase of the process that was taught was the ice brine – the technique of bringing the temperature of the fish down to around freezing point, without actually freezing the flesh. Although any reasonably-sized ice box is suitable for the task of ice brining, in the main ice box aboard the wet liner, underneath the lids (that doubled as sponge covered kill tables) were insulated compartments (nine compartments at 110L each) that were used to contain a ‘slurry’ of ice and salt water. This slurry was mixed at a ratio of approximately equal parts premium flake ice and salt water, and strictly adjusted throughout the day as fish were added – according to both the warmth of their body melting the ice, and the temperature of the water added.

Once the fish had been killed, we would carefully lower the fish into the ice brine and assemble them to ensure that no part of the body touched another fish in the brine.

Bringing the temperature of the fish down to such a low thermal reading simply preserve the fish. This optimizes quality and negates the necessity of immediate gut and gill removal. All the fish we exported had the gut and gills intact, and I was amazed that they could apparently keep this way after being ‘set’ in the slurry, simply refrigerated for up to two weeks.

Once we had returned to the harbour, we began to remove fish from the brine before packing carefully (to avoid scaling) into bins in a deliberate side-by-side, head-tail fashion. When removed from the brine, a ‘set’ fish was more stunning than when first caught, the colours of snapper, emperor and coral trout were dazzling. I have yet to find a fish for sale at the supermarket or seafood outlet that compares.

A fillet taken from a fish treated in this manner of soft land, spike and brine, will be as firm as a chicken breast and the polar opposite in appearance, texture and flavor of a fillet taken from a fish caught and dispatched using any other method.

As previously stated at the introduction of this series, like many of us, I’ve been an angler my whole life. However, my entire fishing perspective was changed significantly once I worked professionally. In just two seasons fishing for snapper off the coast of Carnarvon, and calculating what we returned to the ocean (around 4/5th) and what was kept for export, plus the addition of an abundance of mixed reef fish catch, it was averaged that my share of the haul alone was a staggering amount of well over 200,000 fish. It would have been absolutely impossible to manage such sheer volume of living fish, had we not implemented some careful and sophisticated fish handling techniques. Techniques that don’t require expensive equipment – (a piece of wet sponge foam, a sharpened screwdriver and a few bags of ice won’t break the bank!) This made the fishing far more productive and will certainly allow you much more time with your bait in the water! These techniques are easy to implement and the least we can do to acknowledge the magnificence and bounty we harvest.

Ultimately, if you implement these techniques you will engage in responsible fishing practice and contribute to the longevity of our oceans.

So get out there and be willing to change to a better way. Contrary to popular belief, an old dog is never too old to learn new tricks – think back to the introduction of soft plastics and the skepticism that surrounded it. Learn how to adopt these simple changes into your fishing routine and you will be stunned at the results. I know I was! That’s why I have kept them up, whether I’m fishing from a beach, a bank, or a boat. We can all make a significant contribution to sustaining a healthy future of fishing for generations to come, and it is our responsibility to employ correct fish handling practice.

Once you have mastered the art of handling, killing and brining, you will be eating the best fish you have ever experienced in your life, putting everything else to shame. Make it your duty to also share these techniques, so that all anglers and all fish can benefit, and you’ll certainly be doing your bit in putting some certainty back into an uncertain fishing future.

Until then, see you in the soup!

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