A group of Australian Aborigines is looking to modern culinary fashions to revive the ancient mutton bird industry, offering a range of new products from pate to health pills.
They have given the mutton bird an aboriginal name, yolla, created a snappy marketing logo, and developed new products aimed at gourmets and health-conscious consumers, Tasmanian Aboriginal Center official Trudy Maluga told Reuters.
The new products are taking off in Australia, particularly in the country's increasingly popular native food restaurants, and the center is beginning to search for overseas markets, said Maluga, the project's marketing officer.
"We are creating a new industry out of an old one and we are creating new products," she said.
In the traditional mutton bird industry, which once harvested 1 million birds a year during the annual five-week season, the meat is sold from plucked birds. The meat contains large amounts of fat, used by the burrow-dwelling bird to store protein.
With its traditional markets in decline, "that's forcing us to move into these up-market products," Maluga said.
The center is running a growing yolla business, including hunting, processing, marketing and sales, based in the desolate Furneaux Islands that lie between the Australian mainland and the southern island state of Tasmania.
The meat of the yolla, a small, hardy bird that migrates to the Bering Sea each year for the northern summer, has a salty, gamy taste somewhere between chicken and fish. However, Maluga says the yolla is fighting a domestic taste prejudice against the old image and style of mutton bird.
"But when we slipped it to them [consumers] without telling them what it was, they liked it," she says.
The center's yollas are skinned and the outside layer of fat removed, then offered in a range of cuts, including breast fillets. There is also yolla pate, smoked yolla and yolla oil lineament.
Health pills are being developed containing yolla oil, which biochemists have found has properties that help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, Maluga said.
"We are still looking at ways to develop other products," Maluga said.
Independent research by the University of Tasmania has found unexpected health and nutrition benefits in yolla meat and oil. The meat was found to have higher levels of vitamin A, iron, zinc and calcium than skinned chicken, steamed fish or lean beef. It is also rich in omega-3 fats, a beneficial oil previously found mainly in fish.
And a report by the national government's Bureau of Resource Sciences last year identified mutton birds as one of Australia's key untapped wild animal export sectors.
When the Aboriginal center's yolla project began three years ago, it was aimed at preserving mutton birding by Aborigines and helping aboriginal communities in the Furneaux group.
Mutton birding had been both the islanders' economic mainstay and a cultural heritage dating back thousands of years.
With the traditional industry ailing, and looking for new markets rather than taking business from existing predominantly white operators, the center opted for "re-branding" the mutton bird and shaping new products for modern tastes.
This included a logo with an image of a yolla superimposed on the black, yellow and orange aboriginal flag, in turn superimposed on a map of Tasmania.
The returns so far are being reinvested in the project and in helping the isolated island communities, Maluga said.
The project has also set up a cold storage facility to ensure year-round supplies beyond the five-week hunting season.
By fostering the industry and improving conditions in local communities, the center hopes to encourage more young Aborigines to take up what is a tough and dangerous job.
"It's incredibly dangerous," Maluga said.
Yolla hunters don't find just birds when they stick their arms into the yard-deep burrows; the holes are also home to deadly tiger snakes and black snakes, which bite a handful of harvesters each year.
Mutton-bird marketing is directed at the Australian domestic market, but the project has long-term aims of moving into exports.
"We're trying to consolidate our markets in Tasmania, and also on the mainland," Maluga says.
The center also has begun initial research into the potential for overseas sales and has sent samples abroad.