By Gio Braidotti
Canned tuna is a ubiquitous and popular product among Australian consumers, but all of it is imported despite the availability of Australian-caught fish.
Husband-and-wife team of Rowan and Kate Lamason in Queensland has taken up the challenge to change that. Based in Cairns, they have launched Little Tuna, offering Australian consumers an Australian-caught tuna from sustainable fisheries, processed and bottled as a premium product.
The company sells its three products online and through stockists across Australia. All use Albacore (Thunnus alalunga), which Rowan Lamason describes as an under-valued and under-used species with a delicate, firm flesh that retains a pleasant white colour once cooked.
He says quality, sustainability and Australian sourcing are a huge part of the product’s identity and marketing. “Those are values that consumers have responded to, with ethical and health issues seemingly a growing concern among Australians.”
The bottled rather than canned offering also supports the quality message, and allows customers to see exactly what they are buying.
The Albacore is primarily sourced from Great Barrier Reef Tuna, a family-owned and vertically integrated fishing enterprise run by Rowan Lamason’s father.
“The fish is caught using hook and line gear from a fleet of three vessels fishing in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery, which is governed by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority,” Rowan Lamason says.
He has firsthand knowledge of the fishery, having worked as a skipper on the family’s vessels. He understands the care taken to conserve Albacore stocks and the onboard procedures to ensure quality of the fish caught.
“Fishing trips are kept deliberately short – to about seven days – to ensure the tuna’s quality. This ethos continues inside Little Tuna, where we cook with carefully selected quality ingredients, right down to selection of the best suited oil for bottling.”
The quality of the fish from the Great Barrier Reef Tuna fleet was the inspiration for establishing Little Tuna. But Kate Lamason says there is another important reason: “We saw a niche in the market given the lack of Australian canned tuna in the market and gave it a go filling it,” she says. “It provides the fishery with an opportunity to value add.”
The couple spent about six months assessing hundreds of recipes, testing the results on family and friends. And occasionally – given a grand failure – on the dog.
They settled on rice bran oil, which they found was the healthiest option and, being flavourless, it did not overpower the tuna. There was also a steep learning curve related to entering the food industry, including food safety regulations and marketing.
In June 2018, Kate Lamason jumped at the chance to finetune her business-development skills by taking part in the Fish-X hackathon, a program run by the FRDC to mentor start-ups in the seafood sector.
Held in Sydney, she says it was an extremely beneficial experience, providing training, advice, feedback, networking contacts and even opportunities to refine her pitching skills.
The Lamasons now have their eyes on other under-valued or under-used but high-quality fish for the development of new products. But they are not providing any details just yet.
“You will just have to watch this space,” Kate Lamason says.