Shuffling for Sustainability

The story of South Australia's pipi cockle fishery

Pitched in pre-dawn darkness, the Coorong Estuary is lit only by the glistening remnants of a supermoon. A crew of six men pile into the dual cab of a heavily modified Land Rover before it crawls onto an aluminium barge, custom built for the vehicle and its passengers.

Using a handheld spotlight and his expertise (he's been a pipi fisherman for 40 years), the beach captain guides the boat across the inlet. The early morning silence is interrupted only by the occasional laugh and rustle of gear. A 19-year-old greenhorn is first off to tie the barge up at the dock, earning his stripes.

The vehicle rolls off the barge and onto the sandy dunes, passing abandoned beach shacks and vehicles that have seen their fair share of sun and saltwater. Dawn breaks as the 4WD comes to a halt on the beach. The men pile out of the vehicle and select their wide-mouthed nets, ready for action.

If you haven’t visited the beautiful coast that skirts South Australia's Coorong, at the mouth of the mighty Murray River, you may not be familiar with the 'pipi shuffle', a technique that has been used here for generations.

Finding a spot on the beach where the pipi beds barely contain the enormous biomass below, the fishers plant their bare feet into the grainy surface, twisting their heels with a swagger of the hip as the ocean drags back out, releasing a bounty of buried pipis into their nets.

It’s a serious workout for the calves, not to mention the biceps, as the weight of the catch is tipped into buckets and carried to the grader on the back of the Land Rover. The well-known art has kept technology at bay, ensuring that beach craft and sustainability reign supreme.

The pipi, or Goolwa cockle as it’s locally known, is a small clam-like bivalve (shellfish) that has provided Australians with sustenance since the Ngarrindjeri people first fished the region thousands of years ago.

Now, around 550 tonnes of pipis are processed and sold each year, primarily to local restaurants in South Australia and as a coveted product across the Eastern Seaboard. Graduating from fishing bait to a delicacy, the sweet and juicy pipis are finally getting the culinary attention they so fully deserve.

Whether steamed on the BBQ, smothered in butter and garlic, or tossed through spaghetti with chilli and lemon, savvy chefs and seafood lovers alike are hooked, and the humble bivalve’s popularity is growing exponentially.

The Lakes and Coorong Pipi Fishery first achieved Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in 2008 and has become an impressive example of the benefits of sustainable output.

Its recent recertification for five years, with annual surveillance audits, is a testament to both the determination of the community-based fishery and the market innovation which has made the South Australian pipi such a sought-after product.

Partnering with South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), it was the second fishery in South Australia to achieve MSC certification, the team working hard to obtain the consistent data necessary to prove its sustainability.

With the re-certification in tow, there are plans to expand into new markets across Australia, and internationally as far afield as Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Spain, Holland and France.

"South Australia's pipi fishery is one of the great success stories of our commercial fishing sector, having developed rapidly over the last few years," according to Leon Bignell, South Australian Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. "Through determination, and continued industry innovation and product development, the fishery is now a flourishing industry in the Goolwa and the Lower Lakes region."

The future is bright for the humble pipi. Once excessively harvested and under-appreciated, a fine balance has been struck between supply and demand, thanks to the constant analysis proffered by MSC certification and the tireless work of local experts.

As Sean Sloan, the Director for Fisheries & Aquaculture Policy at Primary Industries and Regions South Australia (PIRSA) describes, "We've come from, a decade ago,being in an overfished and overexploited position, to now being in a sustainable position and the enviable place of being able to leave stock in the water."

As the South Australian pipi's reputation continues to grow alongside consumer demand for sustainable seafood, the 'pipi shuffle' is sure to become a global phenomenon. Best start working on those calf muscles now.

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