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Fishers throw a line in to international waters

In this week’s look at WA exporters, Gary Kleyn examines the growing importance of the fishing industry.

p Gary Kleyn

THE Western Australian fishing industry may not be a major contributor to the State’s export figures but the list of WA’s largest exporters in the WA Business News Book of Lists 2003 includes a host of commercial fishing firms.

To put things in perspective, the mining sector was valued at $27 billion in 2001 while the fish catch was worth a mere $415 million.

Nevertheless, MG Kalis Group and the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op Ltd are found among the State’s top 20 exporters, while Bluewave Seafood Limited, Lob-ster Australia, Newfishing Australia Pty Ltd and WA Seafood Exporters Pty Ltd fit within the 21-40 largest export range.

But while traditional fishing is playing a role, it is the rock lobster fishery, particularly western rock lobster and the southern and tropical lobsters, that are dominating the industry.

In 2000-01, lobster sales represented 72.1 per cent of the value of the State’s fisheries and around 62.4 per cent of Australia’s rock lobster fishery.

Fierce competition exists for market share and for a cut of the annual catch. Between the 1998-99 and 2001-02 lobster seasons, beach prices increased 63 per cent compared with the average selling price increase of just 31 per cent. At the start of the season late last year the average beach price was $36 per kilogram to lobster fisherman, while the average live lobster price was just $42.50 per kilogram.

Those in the industry are watching to see who will be the first to surrender over the tighter margins.

Newly listed entity Cervantes Seafood, chaired by Barry MacKinnon, recently attributed its $1 million loss in its half-yearly re-port to, among other things, the tighter margins.

Other firms have aimed to refocus their energy and try a different approach.

Bluewave Seafood Ltd, which is placed in the WA Business News Book of Lists 2003 as WA’s 28th largest exporter, with earnings in 2001-02 of $59.5 million, is hoping proactive marketing will make it a price maker instead of a price taker, giving it greater command over margins.

The first decision in this process was to change its corporate structure from a cooperative – Fremantle Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Ltd – to a public-unlisted company.

According to marketing man-ager Michael Carter, this has given the company a lean edge, which makes it more effective in driving for new markets.

New markets and labels, which are targeted at specific markets, are being developed. Under its Prestige brand, Bluewave has increased its presence in France with exclusive French agent Conic to approximately 60 per cent of WA lobster exports to France.

Bluewave CEO Rob Rose likens the lobster industry to the wool industry during the 1980s.

“The parallels in the lobster industry today are chilling,” Mr Rose said.

“Both industries, the wool then and the lobster now, with minor exceptions are dominated by producer-elected boards or privately owned traders who survive on their wits but lack any sophisticated marketing ability. [They] constantly take opportunistic decisions for the short term.”

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