Know everything about buying fish in Australia

Fish being a good source of Protein, Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, regarded as one of the healthiest food available on planet earth. Due to this, demand for seafood in Australia has increased considerably over the years to an extend that domestic production meets less than 30 percentage of the demand.

Though the retail seafood market in Australia is well regulated, there are no shortage of dodgy practises and unscrupulous operators.  The types of fish commonly available and the tricks and tips to spot a good quality seafood have become an essential knowledge for an ordinary buyer.

Unlike Indians, strong flavoured fish are not Aussie favourites. Aussies prefer soft, gentle tasting fish without the Fish flavour. Indians traditionally prefer Sardines and mackerels which have a strong flavour, as they have enjoyed the abundance of these species of fishes in their home land. Below you can find brief information about the type fish available in Australian fish markets and the tips tricks and risk associated with being a piscivorous human being .

How to identify the quality and freshness of fish

For finfish, the quality or the freshness can be checked by looking at the colour and state of the gills, mucus, eyes, the shape and the flesh condition. The colour of the gills should be bright red and as the fish gets older the gill colour will gradually turn to brown. The mucus should be translucent and should be a thin film. As the fish gets older, the mucus will begin to colour pink, brown or yellow. The mucus will also get thicker as it clots. For fresh fish the colour of the eye Pupil will be jet-black, shiny, and well defined in convex shape. The cornea will be translucent. As it gets older Pupil will become dull and grey, the Cornea gets cloudy, opaque or slightly blood-stained. Reddish eyes are definitely a no buy signal. The convex shape of the eyes is an indication that the fish is fresh. As it gets older the eyes will become sunken (flat or concave). The flesh should be firm and should spring back when touched. The fish should have a pleasant sea smell.

If you are buying fish fillet, check whether the flesh has the natural colour of that particular fish and the flesh looks vibrant.  The fillet shouldn’t carry any pungent smell. If you could distinguish between a good sea fish smell and a spoiled fish smell, that would make your job easier. The fillet should have a moist flesh without any brown markings or oozing water. If you find any milky liquid oozing from the fillet, it is the first sign of a rot.

An unhealthy trend is to use dangerous chemicals to preserve sea food. Formaldehyde, a preserving agent, though illegal is widely used for preserving fish. Fish preserved in formaldehyde, will have convex and lively eyes and bright red gills and a flesh that looks vibrant. In that case the only option for identification is smell. If you are getting any chemical smell or any pungent odour similar to chlorine or any other chemical, it should be a no buy signal.

Farmed fish or wild fish which is better?

It is always natural, caught in the wild fishes are regarded as the best. But when the demand exceeds supply farmed aquaculture products became a necessity. With the current level of fishing, most species are unsustainable and farming becomes the only option.

But like the battery hen, anti- biotics are used extensively while farming fish. The fish feed is another matter of concern.

The farmed varieties of fin fish include Atlantic salmon farmed in Tasmania, barramundi farmed in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, eels farmed in Victoria, Murray cod farmed in Victoria and NSW, Silver perch farmed in NSW and Queensland, trout farmed all around Australia, and yellowtail kingfish farmed in Port Lincoln.

Australia imports fish which is roughly 70 percentage of the total sea food consumed in Australia. Australia also exports sea food to countries like Japan and USA.

Fish Varieties sold in Australian Markets

Atlantic Salmon

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Australian Atlantic Salmon is marketed as sustainably sourced from the Pristine clean waters of Tasmania, but the reality is they are farmed in the sea waters of Tasmania and not caught in the wild.  Large quantities of Anti-biotics and chemicals are used for farming and that makes this different from those caught in the wild. Circular sea pens are installed for farming and inside each net nearly 50.000 salmons are farmed.

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Wild Atlantic Salmons have pink colour flesh from eating crustaceans. Farmed Salmons achieve this pink colour by adding additives in their feed. Salmon farming is also destructive for the environment due to the anti-biotic and chemical contamination in the ocean environment.

Atlantic salmon farmed in freshwater or brackish water tend to have gold-coloured skin, whereas those from saltwater are usually silvery blue.

With the influx of Chinese and Vietnamese origin fish retailers in Australia, dodgy practises have become rampant. Salmon is sold with its guts removed and belly cut. Check whether the belly is filled with ice crystals to increase the weight of the fish while weighing.


The name barramundi comes from an Aboriginal term for “fish with big scales”.

The popular notion is Barramundi is caught locally but more than half of Barramundi consumed in Australia comes from Asia. It is often sold as caught in Australia without any label showing that it is imported. This is the most popular fish in Australia for eating in Restaurants.

It will be astonishing to know that only 2000 tonnes of Barramundi a year are caught in the wild while 5000 tonnes are farmed and 10000 tonnes are imported from Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. Farmed barramundi is mainly produced on land in tanks and ponds. Only a small percentage is farmed in sea or ocean cages.

Barramundi live in both fresh water and salt water. There are distinctive differences between saltwater Barramundi and fresh water barramundi.

Saltwater Barramundi is coloured bluish or greenish-grey on the upper body, silver on the lower body, have yellowish fins and an elongated general body shape. Usually there is no trace of fatty tissue internally. Freshwater barramundi has a much darker upper body, a golden underbody, dark fins, deep girth and a thick tail. The body contains large fat deposits. Those not used to eat fresh water fish may not like the taste of Fresh Water Barramundi as it has muddy flavour when cooked due to natural algae in the water. Barramundi is also harvested both in salt water and fresh water. Fresh water firms usually ensure that the water is algae free not to have the muddy taste for their produce.

Blue Grenadier

This is a bottom dwelling deep water fish caught mainly by trawling.  Blue Grenadier has a short shelf life so it is often sold frozen. All the stock you find in the supermarket are caught in the wild as they are not farmed. Australia also imports Blue Grenadier from New Zealand, usually as frozen fillets marketed as ‘Hoki’. This fish is also known as Blue Hake and Whiptail. The fish meat is white and usually sold in fillets.

Flat Head

Around 40 species of flat head are caught in Australia and sold under generic name Flathead. They are usually caught by Trawl, Gillnets, Danish Seine and handline.

The main types of Flatheads sold here are Tiger Flathead, Dusky Flathead, Deepwater Flathead and Southern Sand Flathead. It fillets well due to its long shape and most of its bones are at the head section of the fish. Flatheads are sold in both fillet form or whole. When buying whole fish look for shining skin with a slippery mucilaginous coating. The smell should be pleasant and not that of spoiled fish.  While buying fillets look for moisty, yellowish-white, firm ones without any brown markings.


Nearly 90 species of flounders are sold for consumption. In Australia, Flounder species mostly sold are Greenback and Largetooth. It is a bottom dwelling fish. Flounder can be found in shallow water over sand and mud in estuaries.


Though there are many species of Garfish, the most common variety found in Australian fish markets are Southern Garfish, Eastern Sea Garfish and Short Nose Garfish. Southern Sea Garfish fishery based off South Australia is Australia’s largest Commercial Garfish fishery. The first time consumers may stumble upon the unusual green bones, but it is due to the presence of bile pigment Biliberdin, a harmless substance.


There are many species of Gurnard but not differentiated across fish markets in Australia. The most commonly marketed variety is Red Gurnard. The fish got its name from the French word ‘Grogner ‘, which means to grunt, which refers to the sound produced by the swim bladder when the fish is removed from water. It is a cheaper fish with tasty meat flesh. Gurnard is difficult to fillet because of its bony structure. Its bony structure and lack of flavour makes it a cheap alternative for many other expensive ones as this one tastes good. This fish was generally used for making soups. Bright Orange skin and good clear convex eyes are an indication that the fish is fresh.

Orange Roughy

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This is a fish that can live upto 120 years. This is a deep sea fish caught using deep-sea bottom trawlers. It was overfished in the 80’s and 90’s , with Government enforcing measures in place to bring the stock to sustainable levels. The stocks are now recovering. This fish is sold in Australia as Deep Sea Perch.

Rainbow trout

It is a North American variety which was introduced in Australia for aquaculture and recreational fishing. This fresh water fish was first introduced in the streams of Australia in 1894.

What you buy from fish market are commercially farmed. When they are farmed in sea cages, they are sold as “ocean trout”. This fish can survive in both fresh water and sea water.

Rock ling and Pink ling

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Pink Ling, Rock Ling and Tusk – eel like species with long tapering bodies are closely related. Pink ling with mottled pink and orange skin are caught by trawlers on the continental slope off Southern Australia. Rockling is darker with mottled grey skin usually found in inshore environment.  This unattractive fish coated in a layer of Mucous is usually sold as fillets.


Sardines (Pilchards) are caught by purse seine around the coasts of Australia from Southern Queensland to Western Australia. This is the highest individual catch of single species in Australia. But you may not find much of it in Australian fish markets because majority of the catch are processed for canning, or for making oil or pet food.

Sardines are nutritionally rich with high omega-3’s, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Potassium, B Vitamins and zinc. Unlike other fishes it contains low levels of Mercury being at the lower end of the food chain.


Snapper is a slow growing fish which can live up to 40 years. It is found along the South Coast of Australia. Australian snapper is part of the bream family. It is caught with a range of methods like trawling, longlines, handlines and gillnets. Aquaculture trials of the species are currently undergoing in Australia with open pen sea cages. It is a popular fish in Australia with a soft flesh and  is easy to cook.


Trevally family contains over 150 species of which 50 are found in Australian waters.  Trevally family include Jack Mackerals, trevallys, pompanos, squads and darts. The most important commercial trevally in Australia is Yellowtail Kingfish. Other commonly seen trevally’s in the market are Silver Trevally, Skipjack Trevally and Yellow Tail squad.

Trevallis are excellent choice for children as bones can be easily removed. But it is best to marinate before cooking as it is a dry fish.


Tuna is a general name for fish species belonging to the sub groups of Thunnini and Sardini(Bonito) from the wider family of ‘Scombridae’, of which Mackerals are also a member.

The major types of Tuna sold in Australian fish markets are

Yellowfin Tuna – with distinctive yellow top and bottom fins, is the most common variety here.

Bigeye Tuna –  with a cylindrical body and larger eyes, it has dark metallic blue back, yellow tipped fins and a slightly pinkish flesh.

Southern Bluefin Tuna – With blue fins and bright yellow kneel on either side of the tail base and a yellow bar on the tail fin, a major share of the Australian catch is exported to Japan. Blue fin tuna is also ranched at the sea pens off Port Lincoln.

Bonito – With black stripes on a silver body, this category of tuna are generally smaller than other tunas

Other varieties of Tuna caught in Australian waters are Albacore, Northern Bluefin Tuna and Longtail Tuna.

Tuna is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids and Protein. Generally higher levels of Mercury is found is Tuna, though it can vary depending on the location of catch, size of fish etc. It is not advisable for pregnant women to consume canned tuna due to higher levels of Mercury in it.

About food poisoning in Tuna, please read the following ‘Mackeral’ section of the post.


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With a predominant spine and leathery skin, Leatherjackets are low priced fish variety in Australia. This fish is always sold whole but with head and skin removed. It is easy to remove the skin from flesh. Around 60 species of leatherjackets are found in the sea but they are sold in markets without any differentiation. With head and skin removed, to ensure they are fresh and good quality check for the firm flesh with no brown markings and a good fresh fish smell.

They are found in Australian waters but imported ones are also available in the market as frozen. It is best to avoid them.

The most common types of leatherjackets available in Australia are Ocean Jacket and Reef Leatherjackets. Other varieties are Potbelly Leatherjacket. Unicorn , Bluefin Leatherjacket , Velvet Leatherjacket , Fanbelly Leatherjacket , Tassled  and  Mosaic Leatherjacket


Out of the 30 species of Whiting’s categorised, 13 are found in Australian Waters. With its delicate flesh and distinctive flavour Whiting is a well-loved species of fish for fish eaters.

The most common Whitings sold in Australian fish markets are, King George, Sand Whiting, Yellowfin Whiting, Southern School Whiting, Eastern School Whiting, Stout Whiting and Trumpeter Whiting. King George Whiting is popular and highly valued in Australia.


This tropical water fish is members of the same family as tunas. This oil rich fish is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Spanish Mackeral, the most famous among the large species of the tribe are caught from around Australian waters of Queensland, WA and NT except the very Southern Coast. The other most popular Mackeral Categories sold in Australia are Grey Mackeral, which has dark stripes similar to Spanish mackeral which fades quickly into silvery grey once caught. School Mackeral , which looks like small Spanish Mackeral but has distinctive large grey spots on the back of the body.  Spotted Mackeral a look alike of Grey Mackeral but with smaller spots. Other Mackeral types sold in fish markets are Blue Mackeral and Frigate Mackerel

Tuna and Mackeral Family fishes deteriorates quickly. This can cause scombroid food poisoning. So it should be eaten on the day of capture, unless properly refrigerated or cured. This is one reason you will find Canned Tunas and Mackerals as they need to be processed immediately. So they are smoked, canned or picked.

Scombroid food poisoning can happen due to eating spoiled fish. The toxin believed to be responsible is histamine, formed as the flesh of the fish begins to decay. Histamine is a natural agent behind allergic reactions. So fish food poisoning has all the hallmarks and symptoms of food allergy, so it often gets wrongly diagnosed as food allergy. The food poisoning got its name, Scombroid, as mackerals, Tuna and Bonito belongs to the Scombroid food family. Cooking the food does not prevent illness, as histamine is not destroyed at normal cooking temperatures. In 2014, two Australians tourists died in Bali due to scombroid food poisoning.

Another issue with fishes of Mackeral family including tuna and Bonito are the high level of Mercury found in them. Mercury levels can vary depending on the species and region it is caught. Larger the fish, higher the Mercury levels as it is high in the food chain. Sword fish, King Mackeral, and shark have higher levels of Mercury in it, which can cause mercury poisoning which can adversely affect children and pregnant women especially.

Fish Processing

Wild fish

Wild Fish harvested commercially are alive when caught. They die either from suffocation or a combination of suffocation and evisceration. This period of desperate struggle can cause stress for the fish, which can produce acids and hormones in their body which will affect the taste and quality of fish.

Trawled fish usually carry microbial load 10 to 100 times higher than line caught fish because of mud stirring contamination and gut contamination produced by the fish in the net. More over the fish can get bruised in the process which can result microorganism growth in the fish body.

So commercially harvested fish are usually cleaned and rapidly cooled as soon as possible.  In most cases disembowelment or gutting is done while the fish is alive (not on small fish varieties). It is like dissecting a live animal.  In a Dutch study, the time taken for fish to die with gutting and suffocation without gutting were measured. It varies from species to species. This study in the case of herring showed that gutting alive took 25 to 65 minutes for herring to become insensible to pain

Suffocation without gutting took 55 to 250 minutes. Some species of fish that can stay out of water for longer periods of time even took ten hours to become insensible. This is cruelty at its worst form. Instead of worrying about the pain caused by the fish processing methods, the studies were conducted to overcome the change in taste as a result of the acid and hormone production in the fish body due to the struggle.

Another method used is rapid chilling of fish while alive. Chilling a live fish is extreme cruelty and studies show that fish undergo extreme stress as they are chilled.

Stunners are used on big size fishes to kill them humanely and they are bled while they are in water to kill them when they are unconscious.

Farmed fish

Farmed fish undergo a slightly different method. The fish ready for harvesting are separated. They are starved as long as necessary to ensure that the gut contents are evacuated. By reducing the number of faeces in intestines spoilage is reduced. This starvation period could be from 1 to 3 days. Gut removal and freezing will be done after this stage.

Scientists have been trying different methods of killing fish. In a highly stressed fish all muscles enter vigour very quickly and the whole fish becomes stiff and difficult to process.

Rules for selling Fish in Australia and preservatives allowed

Country of origin labelling is required for all unpackaged fish for retail sale. Unpackaged fish and fish products must be labelled with a statement which identifies countries of origin or indicate that the food is a mix of local and imported foods or indicates that the food is a mix of imported foods.

Additives in unprocessed fish and fish fillets (including frozen and thawed) are not permitted unless specified in Schedule 1 of Standard 1.3.1. Permitted additives for unprocessed fish are

Food type/ generic food category Additive Name  Additive INS no.  MPL  (mg/kg)
Ascorbic acid and sodium, calcium and potassium ascorbates 300-303 400
Erythorbic acid and sodium erythorbate 315-316 400
Sodium, potassium and calcium phosphates 339-341 GMP

Fish food poisoning

Ciguatera fish poisoning

Ciguatera poisoning is caused by eating warm water fish that contain Ciguatera poison. This poison Is produced by a small organism called a dinoflagellate which attaches to algae in reef areas. If the fish eat these algae, the toxin accumulates in the fish body. Predatory fish that eats this toxin containing fish, accumulates it in higher concentrations. This poison is not destroyed by cooking or freezing.

The fish species that commonly causes Ciguatera poisoning are coral trout, red emperor, wrasse, reef cod, sturgeon fish, trevally, queenfish, chinaman, red bass, groper, barracouta and kingfish.

Rudderfish / Escolar diarrhoea

This is caused by eating fish belonging to the escolar and oilfish groups. These fish have a high wax ester (oil) content. In humans, these wax esters cannot be digested and may accumulate in the bowel causing oily diarrhoea. Symptoms normally include the sudden onset of watery and oily diarrhoea with abdominal cramps. Nausea, headache and vomiting have also been reported.

Scombroid food poisoning

Details about Scombroid food poisoning can be found in this article under Mackeral subtitle



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