The world’s best prawns

…some would say are Hunter River Prawns. Here’s where to find them at their freshest.

Created back in 1945, the Commercial Fishermen’s Co-Operative is a group of 105 fishermen from mostly small family run businesses. The Co-Op provides mooring and cold storage and facilitates the sale of the fishermen’s daily catch. When they bring in their haul the fishers promptly receive their weekly payments, allowing them to focus on the flow of the waves and the seasons and not worry about cash flow. If there is a profit at the end of the financial year, a dividend can be paid out to the members.

“That’s the big difference between us and standard wholesalers or retailers,” says Co-Op CEO Robert Gauta, a former fisherman who is taking us on a tour of the Co-Op’s headquarters in Wickham.

“One of our accountants once argued that we could increase our profits by reducing what we are paying the fishers. I had to laugh and tell him that we exist for two reasons: To pay the fishermen fairly and to offer the freshest and best seafood in our retail stores. Our prices may not be the lowest, but you will be hard pressed to find seafood fresher than ours.”

As soon as a fishing boat comes back with its daily catch, the produce gets weighed and moved into cold storage. Floor staff are on hand to clean, scale and fillet fish on the spot.

“Fish and prawns coming off the boat today can be on our shelves almost immediately. At the latest we’ll start selling them the next day. It really depends on how quickly we are selling and when we need to replenish inventory in the retail store,” Robert explains.

On any given day, the Co-Op’s cool rooms can be filled with dozens of boxes of freshly caught seafood – or they might sit almost empty.

“It really depends on the season and the weather. This year, the timing for prawns is a bit off. Normally School Prawns don’t come down the Hunter River to Stockton until January. But with all the rain and the unusual weather, they have been swept down much earlier.

“The fishers also react to current market prices. When the prices for green (raw) prawns are up, that’s what they will bring in, rather than cooking the prawns at sea.”

Behind the scenes everything is geared towards quick and seamless processing, with a constant eye on quality and freshness. There are ice machines that can produce up to 20 tons of ice every 24 hours, a scaling machine to efficiently descale fish, cool rooms with temperatures as low as -35 degrees and a plate freezer for the fast but gentle freezing of up to 1.2 tons of boxed prawns.

About 50% of the catch will be sold through the Co-Op’s retail stores in Newcastle, Swansea, and Tacoma or local wholesalers. The remaining 50% goes to Sydney Fish Market.

“We are the single biggest supplier to the Sydney Fish Market out of New South Wales. We make up for about 8-10% of their sales, or $15m worth of seafood per year,” Robert says proudly.

Read more in our Summer Edition of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Cornelia Schulze, photography courtesy of Commercial Fishermen’s Co-Operative and Frank Schulze