Unfarmed freshwater fish guarantees a very special taste experience. Österreichische Bundesforste manages Austrian agriculture and forestry, including sustainable fishing at the Hallstättersee (province of Upper Austria) lake in the Salzkammergut.
The river Traun flows into the Hallstättersee, but the boat Traun floats on it, at 199 HP and built in a wharf in Linz specifically for this lake and its professional fishermen. It’s Friday, 5am, and Maximilian Peinmeister, 25 and head of fishing at the Österreichische Bundesforste, and his 33-year-old colleague, biology graduate Alexander Scheck, are heading from Hallstatt to the opposite shore. A few last shreds of rainclouds hang from the sky as the diesel engine putters along quietly on the lake as smooth as glass, and the early summer sun is getting stronger. In a few minutes it will all look like a perfect picture postcard.
Wait a moment … Hallstadt? Yes, that´s the small UNESCO World heritage village that was partly copy-pasted by chinese architects in the province of Guangdong!
“The wild-fishing season starts in July and ends in October,” explains the head of fisheries and steers towards the net hanging from a rope held down by a stone in the shallow water. With the engine now switched off, Max and Alexander pull the boat along the rope away from the shore, towards the first buoy. The latter marks the start of a 70 metre-long gillnet that begins three metres below the water’s surface and reaches down to 13 metres. A cheeky gull is watching all the time, shrieking hungrily in the morning air, as one whitefish after another lands in the boxes filled with ice.
“It’s sustainable management we’re looking out for,” says Alexander and points to the nets’ mesh. The 40 mm (1.5 inches) gaps are large and quite permeable, ensuring that it’s almost entirely whitefish weighing 400 g (14 oz.) or more get caught. “These are mostly six years old or above, so younger fish swim through.” Of course this applies not just to the whitefish but also any by-catches, mostly char, trout and – very rarely – pike. “Thanks to the width of the mesh and a ban on amateur fishing for lake trout, their stock has greatly recovered,” says Alexander. In short, wild fishing guarantees natural offspring, and for this reason no young fish are introduced into the lake. The annual catch definitely does not exceed the natural growth of young fish.
The first net has been dealt with, now comes the second. Both are put out on Monday and emptied once daily from Tuesday to Friday, after which they are immediately cast out again, except on Friday. Wild catches generally mean absolute harmony with nature. Fish are caught now as they were when commercial fishing in the Salzkammergut was first documented in 1280. The animals go untouched by human hand. Neither fed nor bred, they live entirely on plankton – insects that land on the lake’s surface – and, if they are predatory fish, other fish. They’re at least six years old or above, at least in the case of the whitefish. Another reason for the great quality of the fish is the excellent quality of the lake’s water, which even in summer hardly reaches above 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit). “This is mostly due to the glacial water that flows in the Waldbach down from the Dachstein mountain into the lake,” says Max. Together with the Traun river the Waldbach also ensures that the lake hardly ever freezes over. “It’s because there’s such strong streams through the lake. The last time that it was really totally frozen after a long period of extreme cold was more than 20 years ago.”
There is sudden happy excitement on the 10 metre-long (30 feet) Traun boat: a respectably sized char has gone into the net. Later, during weighing, this prize catch turns out to weigh 2.7 kilos (nearly 6 pounds). “An absolute rarity,” the fishermen cheer. The char, which are distributed by the Bundesforsten, usually come from the Grundlsee and Toplitzsee lakes. On average, three to four tonnes (3.3-4.4 US tons) of fresh fish are caught in the lake annually. A small part of the catch is sold through retail, but most of it goes to the gastronomy industry, both locally and to ten businesses across Austria’s nine provinces. Vienna is the exception with two: the Steirereck is one of them. One kilo (2.2 pounds) costs 29 Euro, regardless what kind of fish it is: what’s important is that it’s wild. This means that any delivery is sent out on the morning after the actual catch, at the latest.
The Hallstättersee fish is dispatched by express delivery from the Bundesforste’s fishery in Kainisch, Styria, vacuum-packed and in water-tight iceboxes. The precious commodity arrives at its destination just 24 hours later. The drive to this up-to-date operation in the next province takes about 15 minutes, but for all the high-tech equipment, manual work is required, too: gutting, scaling, filleting, curing and preparing for smoking. Even though there’s a tool to use for scaling, machines come second here. “We always have to scale again afterwards to make sure the goods are perfect down to the very last detail”, says Max. Only high-quality salt from the Salzkammergut is used in curing and smoking. Indeed, when it comes to smoking, nothing is left to chance: they all swear by local beechwood from forests in the Inner Salzkammergut.
By now, an interested gourmet would presumably ask him- or herself what happens in the months from November to June, when wild fishing is not permitted. As the Bundesforste look after, work on and partly lease out 74 of Austria’s largest lakes and more than 2,000 kilometres (1240 miles) of running waters, including 400 fishing areas, one of the organisation’s staff, Matthias Pointinger, is well-qualified to provide the answer. “Apart from fishing the Bundesforste have two other responsibilities: cultivating animals in the wild, and pure culture, preventing adulteration and contamination.” Every fish from this wild culture is a direct descendant of a freely ranging fish, caught in the wild after living for at least 30 months in a natural lake of crystal-clear mountain water. Its wild genes make it an extremely energetic creature that’s far more active than traditionally farmed fish. It lives mostly in the deep, only racing to the surface for food before diving down again. Its instincts determine its life.
“What’s really important to us is that rearing and appropriate feeding are carried out following nature’s principles, from their own quiet zones to having to earn their food themselves. Also, that the wild fish’s eggs harvested by hand during the winter months can carefully grow and live in our breeding plants, taking as much time as necessary. When it comes to flavour, even the greatest experts find it hard to identify a difference to completely wild fish.” On the other hand, pure culture means that only the best and strongest fish reach the pool for breeding. “Here too we place the highest value on near-natural farming and feeding,” says Pointinger. After all, pure culture ensures that all requests for first-class fish can be met, all year round. By the way, wild-farmed fish contain the highest levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids of all Austrian fish.
It’s Monday. Maximilian and Alexander have recovered from their weekday schedule, when they sometimes get as a little as five hours sleep. Lasting two seasons on average, the nets are ready to use again, after a few repairs had to be made here and there, like darning holes. Meshes can easily tear if capital catches like the large char get into the net. The Traun also required some maintenance after a sudden wind on Friday drove the boat across a raised net that got wound up in the screw. A new anchor was needed, too, as the stone that was lowered to the lake’s bed, at the outer end of one of the nets under the buoy, got tangled up and tore off when it was pulled up. “We never get bored,” says Max as he starts the Traun’s engine. It’s the beginning of another week. May the nets be as full as in the previous days. It will keep the gourmets happy.
We tank Alba Communications for the permittance to publish the Story from S-Magazine No.4
Text: Achim Schneyder, Fotos: Marco Taliercio