16/07/2019 - 13:56

Austral's Carter proves a good catch

16/07/2019 - 13:56

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Austral chief executive David Carter reflected on his career as a deckhand as well as the importance of sustainability at a Business News Success & Leadership breakfast this morning.

David Carter became a deckhand after reflecting on the limited opportunities his science degree gave him. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Austral chief executive David Carter reflected on his career as a deckhand as well as the importance of sustainability at a Business News Success & Leadership breakfast this morning.

David Carter has every reason to exhibit confidence in his role as chief executive of Austral Fisheries, given he has spent more than 40 years with the sustainable seafood business.

Mr Carter takes an understated, self-effacing view of his achievements with Austral, telling a recent Business News Success & Leadership breakfast his longevity at the company probably had something to do with the fact that he “wasn’t very good at interviews”.

Though he built his reputation in Western Australia, Mr Carter reflected on his career over the course of the S&L forum, tracing his journey from deckhand to CEO.

The son of a veterinarian and raised in Melbourne, Mr Carter said he had aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, his marks weren’t good enough for veterinary science, leading him to settle for a science degree.

A keen sailor and diver, he brought his pastimes to his education, majoring in marine science.

When it came time for him to think about a career after graduation, however, Mr Carter said he was left with few options.

“I didn’t feel like studying anymore and the trajectory for science would’ve been a master’s [degree], PhD and then … work for a government agency,” he said.

That option didn’t hold much attraction, Mr Carter told the forum, but he sensed an opportunity in the fishing sector due to the declaration of 200-mile exclusive economic along Australia’s coast.

“I went to the local post office and rummaged through the Yellow Pages to find fishing companies I could talk to,” he said.

Of the 40 letters he sent away, Mr Carter received only two responses, both from WA.

“One was from Michael Kailis … and he basically said, ‘You don’t really know what you want, so get on your bike’,” Mr Carter said.

“The next interview was with Murray France. After talking at me for two hours, he said there was a boat leaving Darwin in a week, and did I want to be on it?

“It [Darwin] was a bit of a contrast from comfortable, middle-class Melbourne.

“[In] Darwin … everyone was escaping something – alimony, the law or indulging in recreational pharmaceuticals.”

He joined a prawn trawler in 1978, joking turnover was so rapid that within six weeks of being on the boat, he was the longest-serving crewman.

But the job itself was not so funny, in fact it was often perilous.

“I remember it was the middle of banana prawn season and a lot of boats [were] milling around and [they] were quite close,” Mr Carter said.

“One day, one of the ropes connected with another boat, so it was stirred up with mud and sharks everywhere.

“The skipper told me to jump in and cut the rope.

“Sure enough, I jumped in, and didn’t think too much about it, and the rope untangled itself and the crew had no idea how I was going to get back onboard.

“I’m alive to tell the story.”

Keeping afloat

By the time he came off the boats in 1979, Mr Carter had transitioned and became the owner’s representative in the shipyard, overseeing the rapid build-up of vessels.

“We were furiously building boats at the rate of one every two weeks,” he said.

Eventually acquiring a processing facility in Townsville, Austral began operating 33 boats out of close to 300 in The Northern Prawn Fishery.

When the amount of trawlers became unsustainable, Mr Carter acknowledged the need to reduce the size of fleets in the fishery.

“Come the mid-1980s the whole prawn fishery … was seriously struggling, and from 1986 onwards, 20 to 25 years were spent trying to reverse that fleet size,” he said.

“Now, it’s a sustainable 52 boats.”

Though the results of this were more sustainable fishing practices, Mr Carter said people became a concern as broader arguments over property rights and other policy matters erupted.

“In the end, we realised the cake was only so big, and that with 300 forks in that cake was going to see us all starve to death,” he said.

While that transition was difficult for some in the industry, Mr Carter insisted that if businesses were profitable and safe, they could afford to pay a good wage and attract workers who would return between seasons.

“You see a lot of examples of fisheries that are little more than subsisting and they tend to be the problem fisheries where you have increased compliancy and safety issues,” Mr Carter said.

“That’s not to say we’re perfect, but profitable, well-structured fisheries are absolutely key to all of the other things we try to do.”

Austral’s attention to well-structured fisheries has driven it to pursue its ambitious environmental goals.

That’s included its commitment to planting native trees to offset carbon emissions, which has led the company to become the only commercial fisher in the world to be certified as carbon neutral.

It’s also coincided with Austral’s partnership with NGO’s like Sea Shepherd, which has helped the company to fight the scourge of unsustainable fishing practices.

A big catch

Austral ran into some issues of its own when it partnered with Spain-based fishing company Pescanova in the 1990s.

Primarily, the problem involved a boat Pescanova gave Austral called the Austral Leader, which Mr Carter said became known as the ‘Austral Bleeder’ for its high operating costs and pitiful returns.

Ironically, though, it was the crew of that vessel that found Patagonian toothfish off the coast of Macquarie Island, a boon for Austral, in the late 1990s.

Soon, the company began exploring to see if the fish could be found in other Australian territories, but early signs weren’t promising.

“The first trip was a failure; the skipper had a look around and come home empty handed,” Mr Carter said.

“We rolled a dice for around $1.5 million with each of the trips, and Murray said [to me] we were going to go again.”

Returning to the area, Mr Carter said the business discovered six Argentinian boats fishing in Australia’s exclusive zone.

From there, Austral fought against illegal fishing in Australia’s waters, successfully lobbying the government to better regulate the waters.

“We grew that fishery from there, and it marked our relationship with that fishery, because it’s evolved around protecting it from illegal activity,” he said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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