Published June 5th, 2017
The Yarra. It’s that camouflage-brown thing flowing through Melbourne and into Port Phillip Bay, carrying storm water, sewage run-off, and a chemical legacy of some 180 years of Melbourne’s heavy industries. In fact, a 2015 report from Environmental Justice Australia described how despite recent efforts at conservation, the Yarra is still essentially unswimmable.
Yet people still fish in it. Head down to most public reserves or footpaths along the Yarra’s city stretch and you’ll see people fishing, any night of the week. And we wanted to know why. Are they eating the fish? Is it even nice to stand around looking at factories?
To find out we went to a spot known as the “Warmies.” It’s a little place near the West Gate Bridge where warm water is discharged from a power station and into the Yarra. And apparently the fishing there is tops, so we asked the hard questions.
VICE: Hey mate, can you tell me why you’re doing this?
Fish Hunter: Because I live 15 minutes away and being able to fish so close to home is great. And I know the Yarra has a bad reputation but truth is, it’s actually safe. In fact, I’ve been fishing here since 1983 and it’s been cleaned up a lot since then. There’s room for improvement, but for an estuary that’s so close to a city centre, it’s clean.
I see you’ve caught some fish. Are you going to eat them?
I mainly fish for sport but I do eat the fish here once a fortnight. It’s recommended for safety reasons that pregnant women don’t eat the fish at all and children only eat it once a month. Adults are supposed to eat it once a week at most so if you follow that, you’ll be fine.
Once a week. Doesn’t that sound kind of ominous?
Look, you need to know what you’re doing and when to fish. When it rains there’s a risk because of the sewage but generally, the water quality is good. It’s only the sediment that’s questionable, and we know that because with the dredging it’s caused heavy metals to come up.
What do people say when you admit to fishing here?
I tend to avoid telling people because of the stigma. It’s a shame.
And at no point do you ever get worried about eating the fish? I can see a lot of rubbish flowing through here.
I don’t have concerns for the migrating fish like pinky snapper and the salmon. They’re the ones I eat. It’s bream, mullet, and mulloway that are the ones to avoid because those fish tend to live in the system, so all the pollution and heavy metals get in their flesh. But I’ve never been sick from eating the fish here.
Fish-Hunter didn’t want us to show his face or tell us his real name but he made us promise to link his forum on the article. You can visit it here.
Hey Martin, why are you doing this?
I’m here for recreation and sport fishing. At the moment there’s a mulloway run so I’m here for them. They’re the unicorns of the water so fingers crossed.
But why fishing? Wouldn’t a nice stroll around the river be just as nice?
I love the thrill of it. When you catch a fish that’s over 10 kilos, it’s a hell of a battle to land it and have a look at it. I suppose it’s a little cruel for the fish but I don’t care. Fuck them.
If you’re just here for the thrill, what do you do when you catch one?
Sometimes I eat it but most of the time I’ll throw it back or give it away. The majority of people here will eat them though. Last week I caught a six-kilo mulloway. I was going to throw it back but a woman next to me asked if she could have it to eat, so I gave it to her.
Have you ever gotten sick from eating the fish here? Like, even once?
In the 10 years I’ve been coming here, I never have. I had mulloway last year and I was fine but a friend of mine ate a bream from here and ended up in hospital for five days. Bream are ones to avoid because they’re a slow growing fish that stays in the one area so it takes in all the crap.
Hey Steve, can you tell me why you’re fishing here?
I’m fishing for sport and food. I only live nearby so it’s a good spot to come fishing.
Aren’t you worried about getting sick? The water here is gnarly.
I’ve been eating the fish from here for 25 years and I’ve never been sick. I usually catch snapper, mulloway, salmon, bream, and tailor but if you’re going to eat here, the only risk is eating fish like bream because they stay in the estuary.
Have you ever eaten a bream before?
I have but the funny thing is, the ones here in the Yarra taste fine. But I’ve never been sick.
What does a Yarra fish taste like?
The fish from the Yarra taste fine. I once ate Bream from the Maribyrnong and that tasted a bit funny but didn’t make me sick.
I know people that’s been fishing since the 1950s and they’ve had no problems. If you’re going eat them, you just need to know which ones. The old factories used to dump everything into the bay so it’s all in the sediment. Because of that you’ve just got to be a bit mindful.