There’s more than meets the eye to consider when you go for a stroll through Jimbaran‘s fish market. Yes, it’s a stunning sight as traditional boats, or jukung, bring their catches to shore in the lemon-yellow morning light.
Going for a walk through the markets with chef Heinz von Holzen, who runs several restaurants and a cooking school here in Bali, is the man who strips any romantic illusions away from travellers’ eyes. He’s been taking punters to the market since 1997 and is fearful of the impact he’s already seen to date of regional overfishing and pollution on the size and quality of the catch — and remember unless Bali restaurants are using imported fish, this is where most source their seafood from.
Seeing marlin weighing in at greater than half a tonne hauled ashore used to be the norm here, along with treasure sharks by the thousands; then around seven years ago the market “snapped”, Heinz says. Again, in January 2009, the haul fell dramatically.
The southern portion of Jimbaran beach — once home to just a fishing village but now lined with seafood restaurants and five-star hotels, with cheaper guesthouses just a stone’s throw away — is controlled by the Balinese, while the market itself is effectively “Javanese” — meaning “not Balinese” to the Balinese, Heinz says.
Much of the fish you see at the market is actually brought in from Java; it’s stored in water of questionable quality — sometimes with formaldehyde added — and driven here. Some boats coming in act as trucks to boats fishing in the east (the north Java sea is among the most overfished in Indonesia); there may be no yellowfin tuna for several days then a few will arrive on one of these “taxis”, but they’re destined for export. The Balinese boats are bringing in smaller fish, such as sardines and mackerel — they don’t have the capacity to go much further afield — the chef notes.
Incredibly, turtles still nest on the beach, Heinz says. The last two years were terrible, but this year, he says — yes, there’s some good news here — it’s been fantastic, with 500-600 hatchlings being raised after being saved with the help of locals.
Prawns — go for the saltwater ones, which are farmed and decent; the freshwater ones, notsomuch. Avoid molluscs as these filter dirty water, of which there’s a lot in these waters; crustaceans such as lobster are not only not as good as those found in colder waters — think Tasmania — they’re not good value.
Heinz, a dozen traveller-cooks and I are also here to buy fish for his restaurant and our class. The chef has a bold claim to make: his supplier has five fresh fish — and these, Heinz says, are the only truly fresh fish at the market.
Exaggeration? I’m no expert but there are certainly a lot of fish with cloudy looking eyes here and lacking the rigor mortis Heinz says is essential to show they’re really fresh. At least one bucket of fish being brought in has fish with flesh that appears to be slightly rotting, or at least splitting apart in a rather unsighly fashion.
But whether you’re buying fish at Jimbaran or any other of the world’s fish markets, the seafood news isn’t good — and that’s just the start. Our oceans are acidifying and our fish are dying. It’s grim, and Heinz is well placed to be sounding alarms to travellers.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.