Sydney Fish Market: Catch of the Day for the World

A large pelican waddles confidently across the parking lot at the Sydney Fish Market. As he struts towards the loading dock of a fishmonger’s, a white-aproned employee appears. Far from chasing the bird away, he tosses scraps and small fish into the pelican’s open gullet in what appears to be a familiar routine.

“He’s here every day,” the fishmonger confirms, “and it’s his car park, make no mistake.”

Like the happily sated pelican, seafood buyers converge on the Sydney Fish Market every dawn. The second-largest wholesale fish market in the world (Japan’s is #1), the SFM auctions, sells, and ships an average 55 tons of seafood a day (it tops out at 86 tons), an average of 100 different species a day (about 400 different species a year), supplied by fishing fleets in Australian, New Zealand, and Indonesia.

In an unusual arrangement, the sellers and buyers jointly own and run the market. This gives buyers the flexibility of participating in the market-run auction and dealing directly with sellers. Either way, the day starts by touring the aisles lined with pallets and plastic tubs overflowing with Ocean Perch, Barramundi, John Dory, Snook, shark, swordfish, mud crabs, eel, and oysters – along with a lot of other common and unfamiliar species.

As sales are made, crews wearing safety vests and waders label and load the totes, crates, and even whole fish onto hand carts and rush to the shipping area in a fast-moving, intricate dance, weaving past other rolling carts through the labyrinth of pallets and people. In one corner, tuna the size of small cars are sliced open and graded for sushi. Spectators are welcome to watch the auction, but are warned to stay silent and still, unless they want to find they’ve inadvertently bid on a trawlerful of Pink Ling. The controlled commotion lasts only a few hours. By the time most of Sydney is clocking in at their jobs, workers are hosing down the concrete floors of the auction floor, and the last of the refrigerated trucks are rushing the day’s catch to the airport to be shipped around the world.

While sales are going on behind the doors, the retailers in the front of the market are busy getting ready for their first customers. More ice than in the ‘berg that sunk the Titanic is shoveled into display cases that are soon filled with the prawns, fish, and crustaceans that spent yesterday swimming in the ocean. The retail side of the market serves over 3.5-million customers a year. At Christmas, it stays open a solid 36 hours on the 23rd and 24th. The line weaves through the parking lot – past the pelican – as people wait for hours to buy their Christmas ingredients.

Surrounded by the overwhelming demand for this marine harvest, you inevitably think about sustainability. How long can the sea provide this much food? Possibly because their island continent has limited resources and is remote from other providers, the Australians are very conscious of the dangers of overfishing and pollution. They pride themselves on their well-managed fisheries, which include intelligent harvesting methods, catch limits, and action to deal with threats like coastal degradation and urban runoff. They also invest a lot of energy, time, money, and ingenuity into aquaculture.

The tour starts in the chill pre-dawn and finishes about 9 a.m. The market isn’t convenient to anyplace serving a conventional breakfast. But the display cases overflow with great options. There’s something delightfully decadent about breakfasting on cold, briny oysters and king prawns. That pelican has it right – visiting the Sydney Fish Market is a great way to start the morning.

The public is allowed “behind the scenes” at the fish market only on guided tours which are offered several days a week. They start at 6:40 AM sharp and last about 90 minutes. You need to make reservations. As of Feb. 2013, the price was Au$25 for adults, Au$10 for kids 10 and up. No children under 10 are allowed. For more information, visit the website:

Photos: Fran Severn