Dunalley fish ‘n’ chips is a dark wood shack with picnic tables in a big yard and a dozen chooks in a wood pen beside. There’s no gastro-pubbing here. Punters eat beside big blue troughs, where the catch is washed.
Stainless steel benches in the back, charts of fish, and Johnny Cash memorabilia on all the walls. Beyond, the bay and Fulham Island (50km east of Hobart) spreads across the horizon. Most of what’s on offer comes out of here.
Grey day on the bay but winter hasn’t even started. There’s four or five groups, all in fleeces and windcheaters, chowing down on seafood baskets. When we pull up, Senate candidate Craig Garland jumps out in an instant — whisper thin, grey sea-matted Jesus hair flying, and goddamit, the people here know him. “We were just trying to work out what it says on your t-shirt” says a weatherproofs-clad woman, pointing at the poster of Craig and his running mate on the yard fence.
Craig Garland and his running mate, “Mr Flathead” for the Senate — “if we win, you win” it reads, a trifle too enigmatically. “Orrrhhh it’s about the cages,” he says, showing them one of the fish farm images that he has at hand. It’s white, with a depiction of salmon farming more like a ’50s sci-fi horror movie.
“Cos we didn’t really know if you were for or against it,” the woman ventures.
“Well I’m not a lock-it-up person, I’m not a member of any party… but we’ve got to change the whole way we do things, say ‘no’ to the big guys,” says Garland.
Jane, the weatherproof-clad type, nods along. She’s a pro sailor, the others are deckhands and yacht punks from round the world. She’s taking a ship out to Bruny Island. Craig is at his car grabbing more t-shirts.
“I thought the salmon stuff was mostly cleaned up,” Jane says when he’s back.
“Yeahhhhhh, nah, not at all.” He explains: the salmon industry still has open slather, is cramming the bays with fish farms, killing local fishing, the shoreline and much more. Jane nods, listens. Craig goes inside.
“Will you vote for him?” I ask.
“I’ll be at sea — I’m always at sea on election day!”
“You can vote now, at pre-poll”.
“I didn’t know that!”
Gah, Tasmanian campaigning; any more laid back, it would be going over the side of the ship, scuba-style.
Inside, there’s no need to sell the message. The owner, Bruce, is as old school as Craig is wild-man. Bruce has neat clipped hair and a classic face. In fact he’s the dead spit of Humphrey Bogart, and with the same melancholy air. He doesn’t need much prompting.
“We get supplied by a couple of fishies here. It’s never been so bad, the catch. Declining over 20 years. Over-fishing, trawlers… a whole way of life’s being killed.”
He looks ruefully at the stainless steel benches.
“Ten years ago that was me,” Craig says as we go. “Hauling in the catch, opening the shop, scaling, cutting, icing. It’s a great life. I didn’t want to leave it, I wouldn’t want to leave Tassie for Canberra.”
We start back on the winding Hobart road. The wide bay revolves in the car windows, the thousand shades of blue, the bloody beauty of it all. “But if we don’t fight, we’re going to die.”
Craig Garland sold his first fish at the age of eight, in the “top” pub in Wynyard on Tasmania’s north-west coast. He’s 55, so this was the ’70s; but in the northwest, that’s still the 19th century. “Everyone went there on a Friday night, everyone was drunk. They paid 10 bucks. That was a lotta lotta money in those days.”
He already knew the coast and waterways, ranging wide. Dad was a drunk, ran card parties, mum was a professional housekeeper. Just retired at the age of 80. Eighty! He left school halfway through Year 10, went to the navy. Came out at 17, went to the docks at Burnie.
“The next 10 years there I did everything, ran the joint, loading, payroll, tides, weather, ship husbandry…”
“It’s just everything to do with ships… at 2am, youve got a call and an engine’s gone down, you’ve gotta work it out.”
After 10 years, he’d done everything six times; it was Melbourne or further afield. Instead he went right back to the sea, opened a fish shop in Wynyard, stocked it himself.
“Get up at three, four; pull the nets, ice the fish, open the shop. Really took off when I started fish ‘n’ chips.”
“In the evening?”
“Yeah, then I’d re-set the nets at 10, 11…”
He loved it all. You look at a fishmongers, see the ice, the grey fish flesh, the guts in buckets, the dark cold mornings on the docks, you think, who would? But it’s an alchemy, all-involving, the thousand species, the shifting coastlines, the transcendence of it all. And this was northwest Tas, the ’80s, tight margins. His boat capsized twice and he couldn’t afford to recover it. Traded the shop for a shack after he used his chalkboard to diss the local paper about its propaganda for the Wesley Vale mill — the key green fight of the ’80s and into the ’90s. He did his leg in northern Tas semi-pro footy, and went low, very low, before the love of one or two women geed him up and he became a purveyor to the quality markets of Melbourne and Sydney.
“I pack em, someone gets ’em at the other end. I do all right.”
We’re wheeling through the coastal towns now — once sets of shacks for Hobartians for the weekend that firmed into fishing towns, now become the city fringe belt.
About the time he got back to the sea, Garland noticed that things were changing.
Read the rest of Garland’s story tomorrow.