The History of Our Local Fishing Fleet

Australia’s Home of Seafood, Sydney Fish Market (SFM) is the largest working fish market in the Southern Hemisphere and the third largest fish market in terms of variety in the world. SFM is also home to the Sydney fishing fleet, made up of ocean fish and deep water prawn trawlers, many of which have been operated by the same family, the Bagnatos, for decades. 

While fishing can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous profession with no guarantee of success, these local fishers are typical of those in 300 communities across Australia who passionately devote their lives to supplying SFM with the fresh seafood that goes on to be enjoyed in homes and restaurants across the Sydney region and beyond. 

The trawlers are normally at sea for two days per trip, fishing the waters between Newcastle and Wollongong for a wide range of seafood including Octopus, Flathead, Mirror Dory, Leatherjacket and Eastern School Whiting. Some of the vessels go further afield to fish as far south as Ulladulla and as far north as Nelson Bay.

Their catch is sold onsite at SFM’s daily wholesale auction.

Diego Bagnato:

Diego was the first Bagnato to leave Italy in search of adventure in Australia, departing his homeland by boat on April 19, 1957. As the first child of the man considered to be the founding father of the Australian Bagnatos, also named Diego, and his wife Domenica, young Diego was born into a traditional Italian fishing family, with the practice at the core of family life. At the time of his emigration, aged 29, Diego already had extensive experience at sea having first skippered his father’s trawlers in Calabria during World War II at the age of just 14. When he arrived in Sydney after a month at sea, Diego quickly secured work as a deckhand for local fishermen. Within a year his prowess at sea was rewarded when he was made skipper of the San Rocco. Two years later, Diego purchased his first vessel, the Isabella Star, with his brothers Giuseppe and Vincenzo. Driven by Diego’s vision to build his own boat, the brothers sold the Isabella Star three years later and Diego went into business again with his brother Vincenzo.  The two pooled their money and built the Immacolata Prima from scratch in Glebe, near where the Anzac Bridge is situated today.

In 1964, the Immacolata Prima was the first trawler to unload its catch at the opening of the government owned Fish Marketing Authority (later to become SFM).  In those days, the local fleet consisted of just five boats all of which were Bagnato-family owned. Everyone lent a hand at the wharf and the Bagnato wives worked alongside their husbands to manually unload the catch. Diego later went into partnership with Antonio when they purchased the Kirrawa. In 1968, the Immacolata Prima was sold and Diego bought his first solely-owned vessel, the Arakiwa. With sons Giuseppe and Vince on board as deckhands, the Arakiwa was so successful that by 1992 Diego was able to purchase a second trawler, the Francesca, and have both boats operating at the same time. Diego described the Francesca as, “A beast of the sea; unmatched in Sydney waters for its beauty, stride and class”.

The Arakiwa was sold in 1996, as was the Francesca in 2002. In 2008, the Kirrawa returned back to Diego's family and was purchased by his son, Vince, and son in law, Giovanni Tripodi.

Antonio Ianni:

Antonio Ianni immigrated to Australia from Calabria in Southern Italy in March 1959. Having already worked as a fisherman in Italy, he soon found work as a deckhand fishing for prawn in the Sydney region before moving south to Ulladulla to fish the Southeast Trawl. In 1962, Antonio married Diego Bagnato’s daughter Domenica.  The pair went on to have five children; two girls, Nancy and Francesca, and three sons; Vince, Richard and Rocky, who all followed the family tradition and became professional fishermen. Determined to build his own business, Antonio first went into partnership with Dominico Bagnato and bought the Merimbula. Later he joined forces with Diego Bagnato and together they purchased the Kirrawa. 

In 1974, Antonio bought the first of his own vessels, the Mark M, and fished the NSW coastline from Port Stephens to Ulladulla on his own, before selling in 1978. In 1980, he bought another boat, the Immacolata Prima, which he kept until 1985 before returning to Italy to build a fishing trawler, the Stella Del Mare (‘Star of the Sea’). 

Antonio returned to Australia two years later, and bought Immacolata ll. He resumed fishing the NSW coastline on this vessel until 2004 when he sold up and retired to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

Giuseppe Bagnato:

Giuseppe Bagnato was born in 1934 in Bagnara, in Southern Italy’s Calabrian region.  When he was 10, his family moved to the small fishing village of Petronelli where Giuseppe began fishing with his family. Five years later, the family moved again, this time to another fishing village; Nicotra. The family built a successful fishing business, boasting five boats. Giuseppe and his brothers all went on to become professional fishermen and spend significant parts of their lives working in the Australian fishing industry.

In 1954, 20 year old Giuseppe was called up for two years’ compulsory National Service. Born with sea legs, he naturally chose to serve in the Navy, and spent time in Naples and Reggio in the Calabrian region. When Giuseppe returned from Service many of his brothers had gone their separate ways so Giuseppe and his brother, Rocky Bagnato went into partnership, fishing and making nets.

Four years later, in April 1960, Giuseppe’s brother Diego sponsored him to come to Australia.  When he arrived in May of 1960, Giuseppe turned his seafaring skills to fishing and bought the trawler, Isabella Star, in partnership with his brother Paolo. He went on to buy a number of boats including the Calabria Star, Santa Maria and Leeton Star, which he owned for 17 years. Giuseppe became one of the leading fishermen in Newcastle, setting standards for trawl fishing in the area.

Giuseppe sold the last of these vessels, the Leeton Star, in 1979 and bought a fish retail outlet in Newcastle, Bagnato Seafood, which he owned for three years with his brother Domenico. His love for the sea was too great, however, and the business was sold and replaced with a small trawler, the Siti S, which sold in 2008. 

Vincenzo Bagnato:

Vincenzo Bagnato was born in the village of Bagnara in southern Italy’s Calabrian region on December 15, 1930. He attended school until the age of 10 when he was taken out to fish with his father and brothers to support the family, which he continued to do until he reached 20 and it was time for his National Service. 

In 1953, at the age of 23, having served 26 months in the Navy for his Service, Vincenzo returned to Bagnara, fell in love, and married Rosa. A year later their first child, Domenica, was born, followed over the next two years by sons, Richard ‘Dick’, and Paul Bagnato.

In 1960, Vincenzo immigrated to Australia aboard the ship Toscana, along with his brothers Domenico and Rocky. Vincenzo started work on the trawler Isabella Star, and became part owner with his brother Diego four months later. In 1961, his wife and children came to join him in Australia. They bought a house in Woolloomooloo and the family grew to include three more sons; Joe, Ross and Domenic.

The brothers’ time on the Isabella Star was marked by hard work and was not without incident. One night while at sea, a bad storm hit and the trawler began filling with water and sinking.  With minutes to spare, Vincenzo ordered his crew to put on their lifejackets and jump overboard into smaller boats in order to row to safety.  Two days later they were able to successfully retrieve the boat from a calmed ocean.

After three years, the brothers sold the Isabella Star, and Vincenzo and Diego partnered together to build a larger trawler called the Immacolata Prima. In 1964, this vessel was the first trawler to unload its catch at the opening of the government owned Fish Marketing Authority (later to become SFM).  In 1967 Vincenzo and his brother sold the Immacolata Prima and went their separate ways.  Vincenzo purchased a trawler named Merimbula and then sold it in 1968. He returned to Italy and with his brother Diego purchased the San Francesco. They worked together until the late 1970s and returned to Australia where Vincenzo purchased a trawler named The San Giuseppe Star. 

In 1976, Vincenzo returned to Italy with his family and built a boat named Australia. After three years he bought another boat, also called the Immacolata Prima. Vincenzo was on this vessel fishing for Swordfish near the island of Capri, when a cyclone hit at around midnight. Hearing an SOS from another trawler that was going down in the storm, Vincenzo acted immediately, directing his crew to pull up their nets and steam to the distressed boat.  Vincenzo and his crew reached the stricken vessel just minutes before it sank, and risked their own lives by diving into the ocean to save its crew. When he returned to Bagnara, the village and Lord Mayor honoured Vincenzo with a gold medal for saving these lives, and he received a medal from Italy’s General Governor for his heroism.

Between 1976 and 1980, Vincenzo worked the southern and northern summers in Australia and Italy, as a skipper on the John Dory and Elizabeth May. After four years, Vincenzo docked permanently in Australia, where he bought the Seaport in 1982 with his son Paul, and in 1991 bought another trawler, the Antonia.  In 2003 Vincenzo was made an Italian Cavalieri (trans. ‘Italian Sir’) by the Italian Government and was presented with a gold medal for his hard work and bravery at sea. This medal was presented at the Italian Consulate in Sydney with great Honours on behalf of the Italian Premier.

Domenico Bagnato:

Domenico Bagnato emigrated from his native Italy to Australia in late October 1960, after completing his two years of compulsory National Service in the Italian Navy Submarine Corps. During his Service, he was awarded a bronze medal of courage for saving three people from drowning.

Domenico arrived in Australia after a month-long voyage on the Toscana, with brothers Rocky and Vincenzo.

Following in the Bagnato family tradition, in 1961 Domenico went into partnership in his first fishing trawler, the Haledon. After this vessel was sold in 1965, he partnered with Antonio in the purchase of another trawler, the Merimbula, which he owned until 1968.

In early 1969, Domenico sailed to Sydney to skipper the 45-foot trawler Una around its homeport at Norfolk Island, until the boat’s owner commissioned him to relocate the trawler to Newcastle. With no GPS or radar navigation, Domenico navigated by compass for seven days and nights. Just 12 hours from the mainland bad weather set in and the Una was forced to change course. Battling gale force winds and high seas, the trawler finally reached Coffs Harbour, only to be hit by huge waves crashing over the harbour’s break wall with such force that they smashed wharves and destroyed 15 boats. Domenico and the crew were lucky to survive.

In 1970, Domenico settled with his family in Merewether, Newcastle and joined his brother Giuseppe on the Leeton Star. The dangers of a life at sea soon presented themselves again. Domenico recalls an incident on the Leeton Star when a fishing net got caught at the side of the boat as they were shooting the net to sea. As he moved to free it, his boot became tangled in the net and he was dragged overboard and under water. Luckily the quick-thinking Guiseppe managed to winch the net back up at top speed, saving Domenico, and the two were back at work within the hour.

In 1976, Domenico bought his third and last fishing trawler, the Kirrawa. In 1979 Domenico also went on to help his brother, Guiseppe own a retail seafood shop, Bagnato Seafood. In 1988, Domenico was nominated by his peers as a pioneer fishermen, and for his efforts and contribution to the fishing industry was awarded a gold medal on Australia’s Bicentenary by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

In 1994 Domenico moved from Newcastle to Sydney and settled with his family in Pyrmont.

Domenico’s son, Diego ‘Richie’ Bagnato (not to be confused with his uncle Diego or grandfather Diego!), has followed family tradition by taking over the Kirrawa. In 2005 Diego bought the Maybell ll and replaced it with the Cape Conway in 2014. In late 2007 and after being in the family for 31 years the Kirrawa was sold.

Sadly, Domenico passed away on the 9th July 2008 but his legacy lives on in his son Richie who continues to provide SFM with fresh seafood from the Cape Conway.

Salvatore Bagnato:

Following his brothers, Salvatore Bagnato arrived in Australia from Italy in 1962. Brought up in a multi-generational Italian fishing family and a keen fisherman from the age of eight, Salvatore recalls cleaning his family’s boats and helping to unload the catch of the day just for fun. By the age of 10, Salvatore and his father were fishing for Swordfish together.

Salvatore was 15 when he arrived and he and his brother, Domenico moved into the inner city suburb of Paddington to live with their brother Paolo. Soon Salvatore and Paolo were earning £20 a week (double the then-average weekly wage) prawning in Sydney Harbour.

When Salvatore turned 19, he bought his first trawler, the Leeton Star, with Paolo. Together they worked this vessel along the NSW coast from Ulladulla to Seal Rocks for four years. In 1975, Salvatore moved back to Italy for five years where he went into partnership with his brother Rocky, before returning to Australia in 1980 to buy another trawler, the Jodi Ann.

While fishing has taken up nearly all of Salvatore’s life, like many fishermen, it has often nearly cost him it. His most hazardous experience at sea occurred when a sudden change in weather conditions hit unexpectedly whilst he was fishing at Palm Beach, at the tip of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Salvatore remembers lying face down and praying for his life as 50-knot winds battered the Jodi Ann and waves as high as 8 metres came crashing onto the deck. For the duration of the storm, his brother Diego on the Arakiwa could only wait anxiously at the Heads, unable to help because of the severity of the conditions and fearing the worst for the Jodi Ann and its crew.

Paolo Bagnato:

Paolo Bagnato (1936-1998) was the fifth of nine children born into this seafaring family from the Italian fishing village of Bagnara in Calabria. Paolo joined his two brothers, Diego and Giuseppe in Sydney in 1960 however his initial stay was short-lived as he missed his wife and their two young children.

He soon returned with his young family in tow. His first vessel was a prawn trawler called the Silvia on which he trawled the rich waters of Sydney Harbour. Later he acquired the seafaring vessel Isabella Star and began to build a new life for his young family in their adopted country.

As his career progressed, he bought the Leeton Star, a boat which was his pride and joy until the opportunity of a more ‘normal’ life presented itself. He launched himself as a land-based businessman in a mixed business-grocery store purchased from his brother Rocky who was returning to Italy with his family.

The lure of the sea proved too strong however, and before long Paolo was back on the water on the San Rocco. In 1975, he sold this vessel and returned to Italy with his family, but again this was shortlived. By 1976, Paolo and his family were in Australia once more and he acquired the Piranha, a prawn-fishing vessel based out of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay during the halcyon days of those two estuaries.

When he eventually sold the Piranha, Paolo still wanted to be a part of the industry which had given him and his family such a great life, so he focused on the art of net-making and mending, becoming a respected craftsman very much in demand by his peers.

Up until his passing, it was a common to see Paolo with a net between his hands weaving his magic on the SFM wharves; a sight which is much missed today.

Carmelo Aiello:

Carmelo Aiello was born in Sydney on March 17, 1951, the son of Andrew and Lisa Aiello who had settled in North Sydney after emigrating from Sicily after World War II. Soon after arriving, Andrew joined his Uncle Nino on the St John, one of many trawlers working from Woolloomooloo at the time. After two years, Andrew had saved enough money to secure a loan for his first boat, the St Provendenza; a brand new 25-foot prawn trawler, and began working Sydney Harbour.

Carmelo was introduced to fishing as soon as he could walk and at a young age became determined to carry on the family’s fishing tradition. He quickly absorbed his father’s natural passion for boats and the sea, and followed his father everywhere to learn all he could about boats, nets and the NSW coastline. 

At the age of 13, Carmelo began his fishing career when father Andrew, bought him his very first boat, a Prawn trawler for Sydney Harbour named Carmela LFB 2214.

Carmelo still remembers the excitement, much like the thrill anyone feels driving their first car, but instead of a Holden, Carmelo’s dream ride was a prawn trawler. 

Carmelo and his father worked the Carmela as a team in Sydney Harbour, Newcastle, the Hawkesbury and Botany Bay.

During winter, when the prawning season was closed, Carmelo worked as a deckhand with his cousin Tony on an ocean trawler, an experience which fuelled dreams of owning his own such vessel. In 1981 that dream became a reality, when he went into partnership with a family member and bought the San Giuseppe Star, a 50-foot ocean trawler.  The pair went on to buy another vessel, a 60-foot trawler, the Veronica S, which they later sold.  

In 1988 Carmelo went out on his own and bought the Lisa Ann, his pride and joy. Carmelo still takes the 17-metre ocean trawler to sea, fishing up and down the coast of NSW.  He also owns a prawn trawler, the Sicilia Star, purchased from Paul Bagnato in the early 1980’s, and still works the Hawkesbury River trawling for King and School Prawns in the summer months.

Carmelo has five children; Andrew, Lisa, Fernando, Giuseppe and Daniel. The youngest son Daniel hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps some day. 

Professional Fishermen's Association