Tag Archives: Murray Cod Dreaming

MURRAY COD, AN ICONIC AUSTRALIAN FISH – information and fish recipes

I have just spent the weekend in Albury (Victoria). I will mention Wodonga (NSW) in the same breath as I see them as being one city. The Murray River separates the two locations.

Inevitably some of the conversation was about fishing and it was good to hear that once again there seem to be some pretty big Murray Cods in the Hume Weir.

Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii peelii) are found in freshwater rivers and creeks in eastern South Australia and west of the Great Dividing Range in NSW, Victoria and southern Queensland.

It is close to Christmas and many are planning to cook fish, especially for Christmas Eve. Those living in Australia may be able to purchase this beautiful tasting fish – Murray Cod but it will probably need to be preordered.

I wrote this piece for a fishing magazine called Fishing Lines in 2012. The magazine died years ago, but as we sat around discussing fishing in Albury I remembered that I had a copy of the writing. Here it is.

My fascination with Murray cod began when I first moved to Moorook in the early 1970’s, a small community near Barmera  and Berri in South Australia. For three years I taught at Glossop High School and in that time I got to know some of the people in the towns sprinkled along a string of lakes and lagoons of the Murray River floodplain, commonly called The Riverland.

I have always been interested in sourcing food locally and although I had heard stories about incredibly large fish caught in various parts of the river, I wondered why a fish so large and once so abundant was not around any more.

Sometimes, local recreational fishers sold redfin (introduced species) and catfish to the Moorook General Store and many of them had stories to tell about their fathers and grandfathers who had caught Murray cod and were amazed by its size, exquisite taste and beauty. The most spectacular catches were often celebrated by photos of fisherfolk posing with their catch in homes, hotels and the local press.

The Aboriginal people along the length of the river also revered and respected the Murray cod. There are several local names for this spirit fish in their mythology and creation stories.

The cod was perfectly adapted to the cycles of the Murray, while the river ran free in times of flood and drought. But the stories of miraculous catches of this remarkable fish dried up as the river became increasingly regulated with weirs and locks to serve irrigated agriculture in the Murray Darling Basin.

The Riverland locals may have lamented the decline in cod stocks, but they saw it as a regrettable price of progress. Irrigation was the way to go. It enabled the growing of a range of crops and brought prosperity to the area. It provided jobs in a range of industries and population growth to their local area and throughout the Riverland.

The flows in the Murray were increasingly regulated to allow more consistent water extraction for the irrigation schemes. There were even projects to remove snags from the river, which were a critical part of the cod’s habitat, especially important in the fish’s breeding cycle. Murray cod are carnivores and snags also support a healthy food chain of algae, bacteria and fungi necessary to sustain an abundant supply of shrimps, yabbies, mussels, tortoises, reptiles, other fish, small mammals and frogs – all of which were food for cod. There are stories of Murray cod eating water hens as well.

This print of the Murray Cod by Melbourne artist Clare Whitney beautifully expresses all that this magnificent fish represents for us in Australia. I bought it soon after I moved to Melbourne.

The image of the Murray cod in the centre of a map of Australia gives the fish its due. It is a national icon, a very ancient fish and a symbol of the Murray Darling River system. In the past the fish was a marvel and a valued food source in natural abundance.

Clare Whitney has placed the cod in a map from the Commonwealth bureau of Meteorology, which shows the average annual evaporation in inches, based on observations for seventy stations with records ranging from 5-82 years. There is no doubt that there are climatic factors contributing to the Murray cod’s decline.

The cod is an indicator of a healthy river. The vulnerability of the Murray cod reflects the environmental and ecological crisis across the Murray-Darling river system. Contributing significantly to the cod’s decline is the degradation of our waterways: the reduced quantity and quality of the water, pollution, the introduction of alien species of fish, overfishing and illegal fishing. Hard-hoofed animals, especially cattle, destroy riverbanks and the vegetation, demolishing the structure of the river. Our methods of agriculture and food production have played a major part in the destruction of the riverine ecosystem and threatened the survival of the Murray cod. State and Commonwealth Governments, and pastoral and agricultural interests are still struggling to establish an agreement that will allow viable environmental flows in the Murray-Darling basin. Faced with this, there is some small consolation in seeing that a number of sustainable cod aquaculture projects are being established and developed in different locations across Australia. But it would be far more preferable for us to change the way we manage our river catchments and water allocations to ensure the long term survival of the Murray cod in the wild, especially those projects which enable healthy breeding of this iconic fish.

Murray Cod is pretty hard to get and the best thing you can do is call  your favourite fresh fish supplier and see if they can  sell you one.

Failing that, there is information about Murray Cod on the Sydney Fish Market website and that suggests Leatherjackets, Pearl Perch and West Australian Dhufish as alternatives – these fish will have the same texture and sweetness. Leatherjackets however, are a small fish.

Recipes suitable for  Murray Cod and large fish :

PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish, MURRAY COD)

FISH POACHED IN A FISH KETTLE in bouillon

PESCE GRATINATO (Baked fish topped with almonds and pistachios)

PESCE CON FINOCCHIO E ROSMARINO (Fish with fennel and rosemary)

PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish, MURRAY COD)

I have just purchased this beautiful print of a Murray cod. It is a dry-point etching, by Clare Whitney, a Melbourne based printmaker and painter.

Murray cod is raised in fish farms and is rare in the wild, but this was not always so.
John Oxley, an explorer of the Murray-Darling basin in inland New South Wales wrote in his journal in 1817:
If however the country itself is poor, the river is rich in the most excellent fish, procurable in the utmost abundance.

Murray cod is Australia’s iconic, freshwater fish, once found naturally thorough-out most of the Murray-Darling River System. It is a native fish, which features strongly both in Aboriginal mythology and Australian folklore, though it is called by different names. It provided food to Aboriginal Australians and early settlers, but later suffered a significant decline due to overfishing and environmental degradation. In the 1950s, annual catches were still above 150,000 tonnes and Australians were proud of this fish – in 1954, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were presented with Murray cod at a State Banquet at Parliament House on their first visit to Australia.

There are many tales told by anglers, who are reputed to have caught enormous fish. Unfortunately, these stories may be true. Murray cod can live for up to a century, grow more than a metre long and weigh more than 100kg (the biggest on record was 1.8m long, weighed 114kg and was over 100 years old).

The major problem the cod face today is the inconsistent supply of water in the Murray-Darling River system, partly due to the prolonged drought and exacerbated by the amount of water taken from the river (regulated by locks, removed for irrigation), which has altered the river flow and the shape of the river. This has resulted in changes of habitat and adverse conditions for breeding.

Fish plate_2057The introduction of redfin perch in the 1950’s (carnivorous predators and competitors), followed by the European carp, and the use of toxic chemicals from farming practices have all compounded the impact on the stocks of Murray cod.

Although different states operated on different premises and priorities some positive strategies were initiated and have been supported by the Australian Government since the early 1980’s to help the cod recover. These include: improved fisheries and environmental management and protection of stocks through fishing regulations; imposed closed seasons for fishing; breeding and release of hatchery-reared fingerlings.

While these approaches have contributed to some increases in numbers in certain parts of the river system, the drought (some are calling it the worst in 1,000 years) is now adding further stresses.
Aquaculture
Murray cod is being successfully grown in pond culture and tank-based re-circulating systems and is regaining the status it deserves as a superb tasting fish. It is difficult to purchase, although it seems to be available in certain restaurants (in Melbourne).

Murray cod is particularly appetizing– baked, pan fried, poached or steamed.

Murray Cod Dreaming
The Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray have a Dreamtime legend about Ponde, the great Murray cod that helped form the Murray River and the waterways all the way down to Lake Alexandrina (in the south East of Adelaide in South Australia). Ponde was chased by one of the men from the Ngarrindjeri tribe, but Ponde was so big and fast that when he swam, he carved out the existing little river into a very large waterway known as the River Murray, complete with cliffs and bends. The persuer’s brother- in-law also joined in the chase and when he caught him in Lake Alexandrina he cut Ponde into little pieces.
These became the different fish – mulloway, mullet, bream and others, once plentiful in the Coorong (The Coorong is a unique, long shallow pool of salty water, stretching for over 100 kilometres from the Murray mouth up to Lakes Albert and Alexandrina. – unique for its beauty, its isolation and once, for its abundance of fish and bird life).

Fish_6332

RECIPE: PESCE IN PADELLA (Pan fried fish)
Food cooked in padella, (‘n or `na padedda in Sicilian) is cooked in a fry pan. This is generally the culinary term used for sautéed, shallow frying or pan-frying.

The method is relatively fast and the medium to high heat required is easily controlled. It suits almost any whole fish (river or sea), fillets or cutlets. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish and whether you prefer the fish to be cooked through. I often find that when I use my heavy based frypan instead of my non- stick pan, the cooking is faster, the fish is crisper and the juices left in the pan are more caramelized and tasty.

The original recipe is for river trout (Trout is caught in the Manghisi River near Noto, which is not far from Ragusa). It is cooked with wild fennel, green and black olives and very thin slices of lemon. Fresh thyme is also a strong flavouring and can be (probably needs to be) substituted for the fennel. I have also used fresh dill (more Greek than Italian).

Do buy good quality olives to get the real intended flavour!! Need I also say that there is ‘good salt’ and that ‘freshly ground pepper’ is best.
This method of cooking fish can be used to cook either whole small fish or any fillets or cutlets.

Suitable fish
Murray cod is difficult to get – ask your fish vendor.
Suitable fish: red mullet, mullet, sand whiting, flathead and garfish, trevally, kingfish and albacore tuna.
Murray cod (farmed) and barramundi (grown in a fully closed system of aquaculture or accredited, line wild-caught, snapper if line caught (better choice).
Snapper, blue-eye travalla and mackerel are from the (think twice) category.

See previous post: Where I buy my sustainable fish. Categories from Australia’s Sustainable Seafood guide- www.amcs.org.au .

INGREDIENTS
fish, 1 serve per person (350g each)
green olives, 5 per fish portion, stoned and sliced
black olives or caper berries, 5 per fish portion, stoned and sliced
extra virgin olive oil, 1-2 large tablespoon per fish
salt, pepper or chilli flakes to taste
lemon, 1 slice per fish, sliced thinly, and then quartered

saffron, a pinch – soak in about a tablespoon of water at least 10mins before cooking
herbs: thyme, dill or fennel, to taste

Fennel-side-by-side-300x282
Wild fennel is used in Sicily. Alternatively use:
• The green feathery part found at the top of the cultivated bulb fennel.
• Bulb fennel cut vertically and very thinly sliced.
• Some crushed fennel seeds (½ teaspoon)

PROCESSES
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and pan fry the fish, add a little salt. and pepper.
Remove the fish.

Use the same fry pan.  If using fresh fennel sauté it till caramelized and then add
olives, saffron, herbs and lemon slices and heat through.
Return the fish to the pan and toss it around in the hot ingredients for 1 minute and serve.