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In search of ‘snappers’ – a trip ‘down south’

I would not say that I currently have the worst ‘job’ in the world. Nor would I say that I was particularly devastated at the prospect of being ‘required’ to commence the new year with a three-week trip to explore the seafood markets of three beautiful countries in the Asia Pacific region – all in the name of research. This trip formed part of one of the objectives of my present project SNAPTRACE, which aims to assess the diversity of species sold as ‘snapper’ globally. Fulfilling this objective promises to take me to many fascinating destinations for sample collection, and I was about to embark on my first adventure. After departing on a bitterly cold Manchester morning and enduring an 18-hour transit, I was greeted by the tropical surrounds and humid climate of my first destination – Singapore. Dropping my bags and snubbing any infringing twinges of jetlag, I grabbed my sampling paraphernalia and immediately set to work. As I traversed the vibrant streets in the 30° C heat, I was surprised to discover that Singapore has few major supermarket chains. Rather, most local inhabitants appear to acquire their fresh produce from a variety of ‘wet markets’ scattered across the island – aptly named since the floors are generally wet from rinsing fish and vegetables. In the days that followed, I visited four such ‘wet markets’ in search of ‘snappers’, namely Tekka, Chinatown, Tiong Bahru and Ghim Moh.

Following some abrupt early morning wake-up calls, I arrived at each bustling market to find 20­–30 seafood stalls carrying a remarkable diversity of species, including fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Although my focus was sharply fixed on snappers (of which a large variety was available), I found myself occasionally wandering off to view some slightly ‘unconventional’ items (in my westernised eyes) in the back corners of some markets. These included live fish, crabs, eels and frogs, as well as shark meat and turtle meat. My Singaporean evenings were largely filled with snapper sample dissections and documentation, but once each sample was safely deposited in its allocated ethanol tube, I stepped out to embrace the culturally-vibrant precinct in which I was based.

With 35 ‘snapper’ samples shipped off to the lab, my Singapore experience sadly came to an end, and it was time to move on to Australia. I was met in Brisbane by fellow fish enthusiast and collaborator, Prof. Jenny Ovenden (Molecular Fisheries Laboratory, University of Queensland), who had graciously agreed to assist me with sample collections in the area. After delivering a presentation on SNAPTRACE to a number of delegates from the University of Queensland and Queensland Government Fisheries Department, Jenny and I spent a wonderful sunny Brisbane afternoon sampling ‘snappers’ from the numerous fish shops located along the Redcliffe peninsula.

Next on the itinerary was Sydney, where I was due to visit the Sydney Fish Market – the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere and third largest in the world. This market certainly did not disappoint and, although rather crowded, boasted a huge assortment of marine creatures, an array of creatively presented seafood dishes, and the most enormous crustaceans I have ever seen. ‘Snappers’ were plentiful, and I bagged 15 samples marketed as, amongst others, ‘red snapper’, ‘crimson snapper’, ‘golden snapper’, ‘saddletail snapper’, ‘New Zealand snapper’ and ‘South Australian snapper’.

The final leg of the journey was the island nation of New Zealand, where ‘snapper’ sampling efforts were mostly focused on the metropolitan streets of Auckland and, to a lesser extent, Rotorua. Of course, ‘all work and no play’ is not a mantra I like to live by. Thus, at the end of sampling, I made some time to bask in New Zealand’s many offerings – including wine tasting on Waiheke Island, viewing the spectacular geothermal activity at the Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland, and taking some beautiful morning runs in the countryside of Cambridge.

Overall, the three-pronged trip turned out to be a highly successful ‘snapper’ collection endeavour, with more than 75 samples collected in total. More than that, it was a trip of a lifetime. I relished every minute exploring the market places, experiencing the diverse cultures, interacting with the extremely friendly locals, and soaking up the sunshine. As I replace my winter woollies and return to the UK, I can hardly wait to begin the analyses and unravel the species diversity underpinning the ‘snapper’ trade in the seafood markets of the South.

*SNAPTRACE receives funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701737.

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