Arts & Entertainment

Sydney Fish Market

In the photo there are men standing in dark suits in a dark warehouse. Before them, separated by what look like thick chalk lines or ropes, are sections of neatly ordered fish laid out on the floor.

This photo is from the late 1800s when the Sydney Fish Market was in Woolloomooloo, and hangs in the office adjacent to that of General Manager Bryan Skepper.

Mr Skepper started working at the markets in 1975, and now in his fortieth year (“It’s almost a lifetime”), he can recount quite the history of one of the most iconic destinations in Sydney.

Of the aforementioned photo: “You’d never get away with it nowadays.”

The Sydney Fish Market first opened at its current location in 1966, starting off in the site of the current car park, which was originally a storage facility for drums of oil. This was via a move from Woolloomooloo to Haymarket in the early 1900s.

It took a couple of changes in authority—from commissioned fish agents, to the chief secretary’s department of the government, to the NSW Fish Authority in 1963—before the site was settled upon and the modern day market began to emerge.

As the business grew, the Sydney Fish Market bought up and redeveloped the adjacent Fairfax newsprint storage warehouse—where the main market is today—opening in 1989.

In 1994 the government decided to privatise the fish market, which resulted in the formation of Sydney Fish Market Pty Ltd, 50% owned by the tenants, 50% owned by the commercial fishermen.

Granted a 50 year lease on the site, and 20 years into it now, the Sydney Fish Market sells approximately 20,000kg of seafood every hour during auctions, and 50 tonnes a day.

The third biggest fish market in the world and the biggest in the southern hemisphere, Mr Skepper admits that “the site is tired”.

“The buildings on site are very old, but the nature of the business has changed a lot too.”

Since the expansion in 1989, the opportunity for a bigger retail presence has seen the Sydney Fish Market become an ever-growing hub for fresh food. Already there are on-site restaurants, a green grocer, butcher, baker, florist, wine shop, sashimi bars—and of course, fish retailers.

The next evolution of the markets is on the horizon, says Mr Skepper, “We don’t have the facilities to cater for the demand, and this gives us an opportunity to do that.”

“For the last 10 months we have been working with UrbanGrowth NSW on developing our vision, which is maintaining an authentic working market in the Blackwattle Bay region.”

He insists that, “We want to ensure there is an open and transparent procurement process.”

A May 17 article in the Sun Herald reported that a Chinese fishing and real estate conglomerate planned to make a $3 billion bid to redevelop Blackwattle Bay.

Sydney Fish Market and UrbanGrowth NSW have both publically refuted claims that plans for Blackwattle Bay are a done deal. Mr Skepper says the Market had been “taken by surprise” by the reported plans, as they had not spoken to the developers.

UrbanGrowth NSW says what has been formed to date is simply “a discussion paper” and that there is no “done deal”.

Skepper advised that Sydney Fish Market has been working closely with UrbanGrowth NSW and had “great faith” that an open and transparent tender process would deliver a great fish market for the seafood industry as well as for the community.

The Sydney Fish Market is currently putting together a functional requirements brief that will feed into a document that will form the basis for the tender process.

“From that we hope to get some great ideas on how to build the world’s best fish market,” says Mr Skepper.

The public has also been encouraged to submit ideas for Blackwattle Bay and the wider Bays Precinct via UrbanGrowth NSW’s ‘Call For Great Ideas’ process.

The change of the past and the present, however, has not impacted one enduring issue for the Sydney Fish Market: winter.

“Winter is funny. In winter it gets cold and you want to rug up and stay at home, but winter is the best time of year to buy your fish species,” says Mr Skepper.

“The cold water means species are caught in more abundance and the price of seafood is better.”

Dimitri Hari from De Costi’s echoes a similar sentiment, “In Sydney seafood isn’t really a winter dish. Being from Europe, winter is when you eat seafood. Trying to convince Sydneysiders that the best seafood is available this time of year—that’s the biggest challenge.”

What’s more, “A lot of the flavour is from the fat of the fish, the omega 3s and all the oils. The colder it is, the better quality fish.”

Whatever the future may hold, winter is here and Mr Hari’s message won’t change:

“Don’t forget about fish.” (RK)

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