What is flake?

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Flake? (via Wikimedia, Public Domain)

No, not that type of flake.

The flake that is on every Fish n Chip shop menu in Melbourne and Southern Australia but just about nowhere else in the world.

It’s actually a bit of a mystery.  Flake has been used in Australia since the 1920s as an umbrella term for shark.  Your deep-fried Friday night feast could be any of the 150-200 species of shark targeted by commercial fisheries or accidentally caught as by-catch, including the vulnerable Shortfin Mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) and School Shark (Galerohinus galeus), and the near threatened Bronze Whaler (Carcharhinus brachyurus).

In April 2014 the Australian Fish Names Committee decreed that flake could only refer to two species: Gummy Shark (Mustelus antarcticus) and Rig/New Zealand Gummy Shark (Mustelus lenticulatus).  This is supposed to lessen the confusion for consumers and crack down on poorly managed international fisheries targeting threatened sharks (so-called ‘fake flake’), but the standards are voluntary.

The only way to know for sure is to ask your fish and chip shop and fish monger what species they are selling as flake.  If they can’t tell you or it’s not Gummy Shark or Rig, it’s probably better to avoid it.

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Your favourite flake could be a common Gummy Shark or an endangered Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Left to right: gummy sharks by Arienne via Flickr (CC BY NC SA 2.0), fish and chips by Travis via Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0), Scalloped Hammerhead by thunderfunda via Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

The importance of being named

It doesn’t makes sense that flake can refer to hundreds of species of shark.  When you buy beef you know it comes from a cow (Bos taurus)- not bongo, buffalo, bison  or kudu.  The taste is consistent and you don’t have to worry about whether it’s endangered or you’re being ripped off with a poorer quality meat.

Standardised names for all species are important for unambiguous communication that crosses language barriers.

Scientific names (aka Binomial or Latin names) are pretty consistent.  Sometimes they change as evidence arises that two species are actually the same species, or a species is found to be two.  The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature is responsible for approving new names, providing guidelines and settling dispute on scientific names for animals.

Common names are trickier.  They vary according to the country, state or even local area.  For example Argyrosomus japonicus has been called:

  • jewfish in New South Wales and Queensland
  • mulloway in Victoria
  • butterfish in South Australia
  • kingfish or river kingfish in Western Australia

As well as soapy, dusky kob and Japanese meagre internationally.

The Australian Fish Names Standard AS SSA 5300 has been easing the confusion since 2008 by assigning one standard common name to each species of fish (nifty searchable database here!).  The Australian Fish Names Committee, made up of interested parties including marine biologists, taxonomists and recreational and commercial fishers, is responsible for coming up with the best common name.  They also welcome comments from the public.

The standard common name for Argyrosomus japonicus is Mulloway, but because the standard isn’t binding it is still sold under different names around Australia.

Good fish or bad fish?

Going back to flake, responsible fish and chip shops and fish mongers will only be selling Gummy Shark or Rig as flake.  But is it a sustainable choice?

The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide recommends against eating flake because of the uncertainty in what species you’re actually getting.  Sharks are also usually long-lived and take a long time to mature and breed, making them prone to over-fishing.  Little is known about the population health of some species, even in Australian waters, and others are known to be over-fished.  The methods for catching shark species can have high by-catch of non-targeted and threatened species.

However, the Gummy Shark and Rig are both non-threatened, quick-maturing shark with generally well managed fisheries in Australia and New Zealand.

Gummy Shark (Mustelus antarcticus) in Australia is considered sustainable.  The stocks are closely monitored and managed by state and Commonwealth governments.  Fishing is done mostly with gillnets and longlines in the demersal zone of the sea- just above the sea bed.  Both methods are prone to by-catch of non-targeted fishes and other sea creatures.  To decrease the snaring of seals and dolphins some sectors of the fisheries have been closed, and since 2011 gillnets have to be clean before they are set to reduce their attraction to seabirds.

Rig (Mustelus lenticulatus) in New Zealand has a healthy population, but their main catching methods are large trawling and set nets which are again prone to by-catch.  I couldn’t find detailed information on the fisheries, but there seems to be more uncertainty about stock levels than with Gummy Shark.

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Some methods of fishing, including trawling and gillnetting, can catch non-targeted species like the Australian Fur Seal.  Left to right: fish trawler by Captain Robert A. Pawlowski via Wikimedia (Public Domain), gillnetting by Pedro Ramirez via Wikimedia (Public Domain), fur seal pup caught in netting by Michael Sale via Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

So what is flake and should I eat it?

Flake is Australian lingo for shark.  It is now supposed to only refer to two species- Gummy Shark (Mustelus antarcticus) and Rig (Mustelus lenticulatus), but the regulations aren’t mandatory.  Your best bet is to ask your fish supplier.

There are some concerns about the sustainability of catching shark species, including Gummy Shark and Rig.  By-catch of non-targeted and threatened species is particularly concerning, but the Gummy Shark fisheries in Australia have taken steps to minimise it.

If you aren’t sure what species your fish and chip shop or fish monger are selling as flake, or want to avoid it because of sustainability concerns there are alternatives.  Some species of whiting and flathead are considered good choices by the Australian Marine Conservation Society and are also pretty tasty.

 

The ultimate resource for all things fishy in Australia is Fishes of Australia.  They also have a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (fishesofaustralia) if you’d like to inject your feeds with fun fishy facts and fantastic photos of fish.  (Disclaimer: I am part of the group project promoting Fishes of Australia)


4 Responses to “What is flake?”

  1. jrozek says:

    @Olivia

    Around Victoria flake is most commonly thought of as Gummy Shark, but it differs a lot by state. In Canberra and NSW shortfin mako and blacktip shark are apparently more well known as flake (http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/fishmongers-say-name-push-gumming-up-the-works-20130711-2ptgy.html). Many of the problems with ‘fake flake’ have happened recently with international imports.

    It’s great that you have a good local fish and chip shop haunt- I still haven’t found a good one around Kensington.

  2. jrozek says:

    @njolly

    Glad you liked my post! Shark species are indeed very similar in appearance and taste once filleted and fried- which is I guess why flake was able to cover so many different species. Although Gummy Shark is supposed to taste the best.

    I’ve seen some Fish and Chip shops nowadays labelling flake as Gummy Shark on their menus, which is great. The Sustainable Seafood Guide (http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au/) has ios and Android apps, and a printable pocket guide that I find really useful for negotiating the minefield of choosing sustainable fish. Barramundi and Dory are other good choices.

  3. Olivia Campbell says:

    I had no idea flake was just a generic term for shark, I grew up always knowing it was gummy shark.

    As a kid I used to see the shark fishing boats docked in Mornington Harbour. They had strings of giant fairy lights to attract the sharks. If you were down the pier at the right time you would see the fishermen unloading the gummy sharks to be sold to the local fishmongers and fish and chip shops.

    I have been lucky that when I have ordered flake from our local fish and chip shop it has always been fresh gummy shark from the bay. I have noticed when I have had flake in the city or inland it often was not as good but i put it down to freshness. Maybe it wasn’t gummy shark at all!

  4. njolly says:

    i few of my friends have told me many times not to eat flake because of the dangers… now naturally i completely ignored that because it’s my favourite fish that is reasonably cheap, so it was good to read about why there is opposition to eating flake rather than simply ignoring it.

    i wonder how often flake is passed off as sharks/fish that are indeed endangered… because it is likley that they coudl easily get away with it, i mean who is honestly going to know the difference between gummy shark and shortfin mako. i suppose i better start looking for alternatives where i can… whiting and flathead are both great fish… but can be a fair bit more expensive at times. but when it is similar in price i’ll have to do the right thing!