Condabilla Fish Farm, south west of Chinchilla

By HARRY CLARKE

AS IT notches up its twentieth year of operation, one of Australia’s largest privately owned fresh water fish farms has shifted its focus solely to the production of the country’s aquatic icon – the Murray Cod.

Until recently Condabilla Fish Farm, located halfway between Chinchilla and Condamine, grew Murray Cod as well as Silver Perch and Jade Perch to sell to domestic markets down the east coast.

But now Condabilla managers are riding a growing wave of demand for the bush seafood, which is native to their area and being served up at fine dining restaurants in cities around Australia at an increasing rate.

“The Murray Cod is an iconic Australian fish and they’re now appealing to a much wider market,” said Condabilla manager Mark Oliver (pictured above).

“In the last five years or so there’s been a lot of effective marketing of Murray Cod, helped along by television shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules, and the species is becoming a much more mainstream product.

“They’re fetching a superior price to perch and they’re being sold in fine dining restaurants throughout Australia, so we decided to make Murray Cod our sole focus.”

Condabilla Fish Farm owner Greg Bender

Condabilla Fish Farm was purchased in 2019 by Greg and Maryann Bender, who decided to diversify from their Hopeland-based crop growing operation and take a dive into aquaculture.

Greg Bender said gradual machinery improvements around the farm and nurturing Condabilla’s small team of experienced staff had ensured the new family venture was professionally enjoyable and financially viable.

“The business was up for sale, it was up and running and the staff were happy to stay,” Greg said.

“A lot of ground work had gone into it, so we were just happy to continue and see where it progresses. We inherited a good consultant and a good farm manager in Mark Oliver with the fish expertise, so Maryanne and I are happy to take orders to fix things and improve things and do what we’re told.”

Greg’s qualifications as an electrician are also put to effective use at the farm, where water movement and oxygenation machinery runs around the clock, fed by generators and solar panels.

“It’s not quite as simple as raising livestock, where everyone’s got a good handle on how to do it efficiently,” he said.

“There’s no shortage of demand for Murray Cod – it’s about fine tuning the economics of producing.”

Condabilla manger Mark Oliver at purge tanks used to cleanse fish

With the demand for Murray Cod comes the demand for workers at Condabilla.

Manager Mark Oliver said the team was always on the lookout for employees willing to come aboard to help ensure volumes of quality produce can continue to increase.

“We like the artisanal side of this sort of farm and I think people appreciate that we keep a very strong eye on quality,” he said. 

“We don’t use a lot of automation, every fish is individually inspected, and we have that quality benchmark that we try to adhere to above everything else.”

Aquaculture technician Cathie McDermott inspects fish quality under the microscope

Condabilla currently produces about 1.5 tonnes of fish per week and aims to increase output to 2.5 tonnes per week.

Most produce is sent to markets in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, but fresh fish is also retailed locally at the Purple Cow Butchery in Chinchilla.

Seafood lovers can also buy a box from the farm gate, and Condabilla cod periodically appears on the menu at local restaurants including the Condamine Hotel and the Chinchilla RSL.

“For people who haven’t had it before, there’s still the connotation that it’s a fresh water fish so it’s going to taste a bit muddy,” Mark Oliver said.

“But with cod, if farmed correctly, there’s absolutely no off or muddy flavour whatsoever. It’s a nice, white textured fish with a nice fatty profile and has a very, very nice taste.”

Condabilla Murray Cod can be purchased locally from the farm gate, or from the Purple Cow Butchery at Chinchilla

Condabilla’s location near the banks of the Condamine River, and generally mild weather conditions, provide a highly suitable environment to breed the native Murray Cod.

“The way we culture fish is quite different to most other aquaculture facilities,” Mark Oliver said.

“Most other pond-based facilities grow fish in one hectare or smaller ponds and the fish free range in the pond, but we have raceways in which the fish grow.”

Condabilla production manager Scott Valler grading Murray Cod fingerlings

“We grow them in purposely housed raceways, but the ponds themselves are a lot larger (up to 6 hectares).

“We don’t actually exchange water but we have an amount of biomass, and the waste that the fish they produce primes that 6 hectare system. 

“We’re basically creating our own little ecosystem in there, so there’s no discharge back into the environment.”

Moving forward, Mark said the biggest challenge for Condabilla would be to continue growing at a sustainable level to meet increasing demand for Murray Cod around Australia.

“Competition for us isn’t a big thing because the Murray Cod market is far from saturated. Demand is outstripping supply all the time,” he said.

“As the market shifts towards fine dining and into a more of premium product, our competitors might not even be Murray Cod, but other products in seafood and other protein such as beef.”

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