Whitebait is the immature species of several small schooling fish caught almost exclusively with a cast net. The demand for these little baitfish has never been high in Australia, unlike in New Zealand, where they are a popular menu item.
Depending on the region, whitebait encompasses many species and, although they are most commonly used as bait in Victoria, the quality of these little fish is considerable. Catches can fetch up to $150 a kilogram.
Victoria’s Port Phillip has been home to a very small commercial fishery that has now been restricted to one fisher as part of the state government’s Target One Million plan, which was introduced in 2014 with the aim of increasing recreational anglers to one million by 2020. The fish used in this recipe are from that last permitted fisher, Phil McAdam from Vancouver Fisheries in Williamstown. They are a mature sprat, so there is a little more structure than the more commercially available imports. It really is a treat to be able to experience eating these little fish in their entirety. The crunch and brine flavour are quite extraordinary.
After 2022 I won’t be able to buy my whitebait from a well-managed local fishery as there will no longer be any commercial netting operations in Port Phillip due to a Victorian government ban. Most overseas whitebait fisheries are not well regulated and are ecological nightmares that I can’t possibly endorse. So I will enjoy this dish while I can, knowing that in a couple of years’ time it’ll be off my menu.