Global standards and ecological sustainability are essential for the long-term survival of Australian seafood companies in international fish produce markets. Peter Collins reports on this year’s Annual Seafood Directions conference, held in Perth.
THE key issue at the annual Seafood Directions conference was the growing demand for trust in product, and its potential wider benefit for wholesalers and processors in securing longer, better negotiated contracts with overseas markets.
Issues such as the chain of product custody and environmental certification for market purposes dominated the addresses given to the annual two-day event, which brings together the Australian seafood industry’s major players.
Program officer with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Mike Sutton, told the conference that marketers had to make consumers “want to feel good about buying seafood”.
To do this they needed an environmentally credible product, he said, and to utilise those passionate about environmental standards to champion their produce independently.
“The definition of quality seafood equals sustainability,” Mr Sutton said.
The conference was told 67 per cent of seafood in the US was consumed at restaurants or out of the home, making chefs an influential target market for product campaigns. This was particularly the case because of a trend for leading chefs to want ‘eco-label’ fish produce on their menus.
This has potential benefits for fisheries in Australia, which are ‘wild’ and environmentally sound, especially those that are part of the emerging global branding revolution.
Among the operators to have recognised this opportunity are the Marine Stewardship Council-certified Western Rock Lobster Fishery and the newly MSC assessed mackeral icefish fishery, which has solid prospects for the Eastern European market.
Australian rock lobster fishermen’s hopes of achieving an EU tariff reduction received a boost at the conference.
For the past five years the industry has been hoping to have its current 12.4 per cent tariff reduced to 6 per cent for an import maximum of 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes, saving operators up to $300,000 a year.
Western Australian agent general to the European office, Bob Fisher, told the conference he hoped to announce a possible interim tariff quota for a set quantity of Australian lobster within the month.
This would lead up to a three-year autonomous tariff quota (ATQ) if the proposal passed the European Commission’s Fisheries Product Management Committee.
“What we hope to achieve is a set quantity which will have a tariff concession so we can establish a foothold in that market,” Mr Fisher said.
The application for an ATQ for Australian rock lobster has received support from the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Western Australian Rock Lobster Industry Advisory Committee’s Ron Edwards said the industry was “hopeful because the signs were encouraging, but there was no breakthrough yet”.
The Australian rock lobster fishery has asked for tariffs more in line with major competitors such as Canada and Mexico.
They have been supported by groups including the UK-based Marine Stewardship Council, whose chief executive Brendan May told Australian Government and fishing industry delegates this week that his group was lobbying the EU to figure sustainability into all aspects of fishing produce, including import tariff quota allocations for MSC-certified fisheries.
This year has been a tough one for the Australian western rock lobster industry. Although the year started with increased harvests by an industry recognised as one of the best managed in the world, low prices due to the SARS virus and resultant slump in tourism, and air freight concerns into the markets of South-East Asia hit the market hard.
The push into the markets of Europe, which will benefit all Australian lobster fishermen, is largely driven by industry players from WA, who are looking for newer and steadier markets.
It was similar forward thinking businessmen, led by Murray France and Theo Kailis, whose efforts secured an autonomous tariff quota (ATQ) for Australian prawns in 2000 through independent lobbying of the EC.
This brought import tariffs down from 12.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent.
For their work in this process, Messrs Kailis and France earned a global reputation as innovative and ethical fishers.
They have led the current push for rock lobster to receive similar tariff treatment, and have already sold packaged product into the Swiss market. They believe that, on the results of these sales, European markets want quality Australian seafood, and there is plenty of opportunity to grow the trade.
Other fisheries from this part of the world also have recognised the value of the trade with Europe, with New Zealand’s hoki, for example, benefiting from the collapse of global fisheries and reduced tariffs to supply to European market demands, receiving assistance from the EC in the process.
Australia Trade Commission representative in Japan, Grant Hunt, told delegates that Japanese consumers often spent up to 15 minutes reading the details of product labels on supermarket shelves, and are equally influenced by product history in their choice as Europeans.
Mr Hunt said food and tradition were bound, but also noted the emergence of newer, younger consumers who were “concerned about the ecological future of the world”.
Japan still presented a strong market for Australian fish producers, he said, amid a more competitive world fish market.
Australian produce was highly regarded, Mr Hunt said, but in reality, Australia was a “fish amongst fish trying to swim into the Japanese market”.
The two key factors for businesses wanting to get their products into Japan were “partnership and finding what the customer wants”.
This latter concern played out in many ways, Mr Hunt said, among them the awareness on Australian producers’ behalf of the growing concern for food health safety issues, particularly in meat and protein products, in Japan. Australia was well placed to take advantage of this need, he tole delegates, with its strong quality seafood produce.
He said Japanese consumers retained food safety concerns following several incidents in the past few years, and “so the Japanese are aware of issues and Australian products can benefit from this”.
Food safety was also an issue raised by Professor in Food Marketing David Hughes of the Imperial College, UK.
“We have to listen to consumer concerns about food safety,” he said. “We need chain of custody.”
MSC chief executive Brendan May warned Australian fish producers that there would be no fudging of the ecologically sustainable status, and his organisation would not lobby for fisheries that thought they could get around a commitment to the benchmark of independent auditing standards that met growing international requirements for sustainable fishing.
He said the MSC had achieved credibility by remaining focused on the steps required to help industry and governments survive and flourish in the modern age.
Mr May said his organisation had gone some way towards proving that the world’s declining environmental health was not only a threat to fisheries, but increasingly to regionalised produce reaching sustainable international market requirements.
Overall, however, Mr May commended the state of Australian fisheries.
He said Australian produce had all the hallmarks of being among the best in the world and certainly was able to achieve the highest status of certification with his body.
Seafood has to compete on more than just price with other meat and protein industries if it is to stay alive and prosper, Mr Sutton told delegates.
Health and environmental issues had damaged those two other industries, and the seafood industry had to take note, he said, as all three faced their own environmental crisis, and were subject to changing consumer perceptions over health and disease issues.
But it isn’t just the retailers who want ecologically sustainable products.
Australian consumers also demand to know that fisheries are being managed with ecologically sustainable principles.
WA Department of Fisheries executive director Peter Rogers told the conference that: “Fish resources are community resources.
“They are expected to be managed by the principles of ecologically sustainable development,” Mr Rogers said.
He said major groups with interests in the management of fish resources included commercial, recreational, charter, non-extracting (diving etc) and Indigenous stakeholders.
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