There's nothing like tucking into a tasty piece of fish. You can grill it, satay it, fry it, marinate it, bake it or even eat it raw (click here for other top seafood cooking tips. Gone but not forgotten, Bubba).
What if, however, you were told that lovely fillet of fish originated from the Yarra River? Would you take another bite or push your plate aside and proceed to the nearest toilet?
Chances are that fish has spent its life navigating through icy-pole wrappers, band-aids and the murkiest of brown water. Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but still, the sheer thought of eating a fish originating from such an environment is tough to ignore.
Believe it or not, the Yarra hosts a vast array of fish species. Perch, bream and eels are not uncommon. There have even been several sightings of dolphins. This makes it a reasonable fishing spot (apart from the dolphins, of course).
Our Yarra River; more than meets the eye (and the stomach) Photo: NCarson (wikimedia commons)
A lot of the fish caught from the Lower Yarra and Maribyrnong areas, however, carry loads more mercury than your average sushi roll. Many also contain a chemical known as PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls - let's stick with the acronym, shall we). To understand the presence of PCB, we need to slip into a modified DeLorean and travel back to Melbourne circa 1900.
Before the Yarra was sold as an (ahem) tourist highlight for overseas and interstate visitors, it was heavily used as a channel to ship industry goods. In fact, our mighty Yarra generated thousands of jobs during times of times of hardship and housed establishments such as slaughterhouses, oil docks and abattoirs.
Unfortunately, with the influx of industrial initiative came the presence of chemicals. This included PCB. Although the use of PCB ceased many years ago, it is still present in the river and is harder to get out than red wine on a white shirt.
The Yarra in the early 1900s. Credit: State Library (Wikipedia commons)
PCB has been known to affect liver function and is also potentially harmful to the reproduction and immune systems. Those most at risk are pregnant women and their unborn children. Thus, if you are pregnant and have a craving for a slice of Yarra eel with a dollop of tartare, try and stick to lollies or corn flakes with vegemite instead.
With that being the case, experts say it is still safe to eat fish out of Melbourne's famous waterway. The catch (no pun intended)? To limit the serving to once a month. Oh and try to avoid eels, they contain higher levels of PCB than other species. They're also a pretty horrid table fish if not cooked correctly.
Perhaps the best way to fish the Yarra is to use it as a 'catch and release' zone. This makes it a great starting point for young kids learning to fish and others just new to the game. And if worse comes to worse, you can always stop by the South Melbourne fish market or, better yet, grab five bucks worth of chips and a flake from any of our Weekend Notes recommended F&C eateries.
Interestingly, while tests have been conducted on Yarra fish and turned up low levels of PCB and heavy metals, there is nothing to say that Port Phillip Bay caught fish are any safer, since there are no tests to confirm this to be the case. The industrial pollutants in the Yarra have been washing into Port Phillip Bay for 150 years, so it is probably safe to assume that contaminant levels in fish there are about the same as the Yarra. Also, fish like bream, mullet, mulloway and snapper regularly travel between the bay and the metro rivers. If you catch a bream or Mulloway at St, Kilda or Elwood, for instance, how are you to know whether it has spent most of its life in the Yarra or Maribyrnong? In fact there is no way to know. So if you have eaten fish from the bay, you may well have already eaten fish from the lower Yarra without even knowing it. And likewise, if you catch fish from the bay, it is folly to think that contaminants from the river have not entered the food chain there too.