Fishing the Great Barrier Reef with the Man Who Supplies Australia’s Top Chefs

From coral trout to red emperor fish, it's all about a sustainable catch.

Photo by Naomi Tomky
Photo by Naomi Tomky

The tiny dinghy bobs on turquoise waves, bull sharks circling beneath it. Their prey? A trevally fish, yellow-tinged and glittery, and about to chomp on our bait. In the tense moment of waiting, a shark swoops through and swallows the fish, the bait, and even the hook straight off the line. “No!” I shriek.

Fisherman Chris Bolton laughs. The Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s northeast coast is his office—which, perhaps, makes those sharks his coworkers. As a certified Reef Guardian, he aims to catch the best fish in the most sustainable manner; that means standing on this dinghy off Bramble Reef, gently wiggling a fishing line in the water with his bare hands. Chefs like Sydney’s  Josh Niland, author of Fish Butchery, and Lennox Hastie of Melbourne restaurant Firedoor have been known to text Bolton, requesting a specific number of coral trout or a few red emperor fish. He catches them by hand, to order, ensuring no waste and no bycatch.

Another of Bolton’s clients is Orpheus Island Lodge, a dreamy all-inclusive private island 20 minutes by helicopter from Townsville (itself a two-hour flight from Brisbane). Orpheus regularly brings guests out to the same reef on its five-hour fishing charters ($1,175 for up to four people), which can include hand-line fishing, like Bolton does, trolling for tuna or Spanish mackerel, and snorkeling. While my excursion with Bolton is by special arrangement, it will end the same way as the resort’s other fishing excursions: a six-course, chef-cooked seafood feast that makes use of the day’s catch.

Fisherman on boat
Photo by Naomi Tomky

On the boat ride to our fishing spot, Bolton told me how he became one of fewer than 30 fishing operations certified as a Reef Guardian by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—meaning that he adheres to certain standards and works with the park on sustainability efforts.

Despite decades in the industry, Bolton and his wife Kim, who expertly managed everything on the land side, struggled to launch their fishing business. “We have the best fish in the world, and we were getting shit money for it,” he said. At the same time, increasing concern about the state of the reef and the health of the fishery led to quotas—limits on how many fish could be caught—and Bolton saw the writing on the wall. He needed a way to make more money for fewer fish, and he found it in air-freighting premium fish to the quality-driven chefs of Australia’s top restaurants. Now, while other fishermen charge about $22 Australian per kilo, Bolton’s fish cost $42, and people fight for a chance to make it onto Bolton’s limited list of 50 clients.

We left the big boat anchored in the soft sand just off the reef. Bolton and I boarded one of three small dinghies, his employees took the other two, and we all spread out. The sun beat down on us as Bolton looked for spots of darker green in the water, indicating the presence of a bommie—essentially a mountain of coral that serves as a hiding spot for coral trout.

island and GPS for fishing
Photo by Naomi Tomky

When Bolton found a spot, he turned on the small battery-operated motor on the front of his boat, which uses GPS to lock his location. The expensive tool prevents the need to drop anchor into the fragile coral as he fishes. He estimates that the battery, which charges on solar power at night, also saves him about 40 liters of gas each day. Unfortunately, the sharks followed us to three bommies, menacingly circling our potential catch like Ursula’s eels in The Little Mermaid and snapping up a cobia fish.

Now, we finally find a shark-free bommie. I kneel, putting my head into a contraption that resembles a large traffic cone, but with a small lens at the pointy end. With the lens underwater, the simple tool allows Bolton to see down to the ocean floor, up to about 30 yards deep. I lose myself peering at corals that look like fuzzy baby antlers and frilly green tissue-paper flowers. Just near what appears to be neon brains, I spot a unique fish and show Bolton. “Football trout,” he says—which makes sense, since its patchwork of black and white spots is very much giving soccer ball.

The reason I can use the viewfinder is that Bolton doesn’t need it; using just his bare hands and a length of fishing line with bait hooked on the end, he can feel what he catches. If he accidentally hooks coral, the handheld line allows him to wriggle loose, rather than breaking off the coral. The viewfinder helps though, a tool to avoid catching anything other than what the chefs explicitly ordered that day. If a protected barramundi cod looks interested in his bait, Bolton can simply pull it away.

Hand holding caught fish
Photo by Naomi Tomky

When I throw the line in, my keyboard-molded indoor hands lack the sensitivity to even feel the fish nibble. Bolton watches, telling me when to pull the line up, which I do awkwardly and excitedly, leaving the line a tangled mess and smashing my sunglasses under one knee. Bolton carefully and quickly spikes each fish we catch, a process called ikejime, which instantly and humanely kills it, reducing the stress that can diminish the quality of the fish.

Bolton’s style of fishing remains niche, since it’s rare to find a fisherman willing to take the time and care to catch only fish that meet his standards. While his clientele are the few and the fancy, his operation serves as more than inane luxury: It showcases the cutting edge of sustainability, the pinnacle of what’s possible. It’s unlikely every fisherman could immediately copy it, but in the same way neighborhood bistro chefs incorporate fermentation methods popularized by Rene Redzepi at Noma, there’s some hope that other fishermen could take notice.

Our fish goes into a chilly ice slurry, which sounds awfully refreshing when the sun climbs directly overhead. When we get back to the resort, I immerse myself in the next-best thing—the infinity pool at water’s edge—and await those six courses of fancy, sustainably caught fish.

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Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based writer who explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersection of food, culture, and travel for The New York Times, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, and more. In her decade as a freelance food and travel journalist, she's won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and Society of American Travel Writers. Her book, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Instagram or take an online food writing class with her.