THE Western Australian rock lobster industry is hopeful a short-term tariff deal recently struck with the European Union will develop a fledgling trade with the epicurean market into a major export earner for WA.
The three-year deal with the EU more than halves a 12.5 per cent tariff for the 1,500 tonnes of western rock lobster exported to the EU.
It is estimated the State’s rock lobster exporters will now be able to save about $2 per kilogram on EU duties.
Although a coup in itself, the autonomous trade quota is being seen more as a foot in the door to the world’s most hotly contested luxury food market.
The Western Rock Lobster Development Association estimates the tariff reduction has the potential to unlock export sales worth between $35 million and $40 million within three years.
WA’s total food exports were valued at $1.03 billion last financial year and, of that, western rock lobster exports were worth about $350 million.
Despite the rock lobster industry’s huge contribution to the State’s export earnings, it has had trouble cracking the European market – rock lobster exports to the EU are only worth between $5 million and $6 million.
Much of this is to do with the fact that the western rock lobster is relatively new in Europe. Another of the industry’s major sticking points with Europe has been an unfair playing field.
WA’s export of rock lobster attracted tariffs of 12.5 per cent, while comparable species from competitor countries such as the US/Canada and Mexico/Cuba paid duties as low as 3 per cent.
Understandably, only about to 2 per cent of WA’s average annual catch of 11,000 tonnes of western rock lobster finds its way onto dining tables in the EU.
Compare this with the Asian market, which takes a little more than 80 per cent, or about 9,000 tonnes, of the annual catch.
The EU’s decision to reduce the tariff comes after five years of lobbying by both the WA rock lobster industry and the WA Government.
Both the Government and industry say the tariff gives the WA rock lobster industry greater access to take advantage of the lucrative European market.
Western Rock Lobster Development Association chairman Tony Gibson said the tariff reduction was hard won and would put the western rock lobster on a level plane with other competitor species in Europe.
He said the quota would not deliver substantial savings because of a number of variables, such as currency.
However, the tariff win was more about access and it is now important for the industry to capitalise on the deal by pushing other packing styles into the EU, Mr Gibson said.
Almost half the western rock lobster exports into Asia are live or chilled and attract a higher price than frozen exports.
Yet virtually all exports to the EU are frozen whole, cooked or raw, with minor amounts of chilled produce going to France at certain times of the year.
Most of the exports are sold into supermarket chains in France, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland but the push is to gain access to the more lucrative European hotel market.
Mr Gibson said it had been costly to gain access to the European market because of the stringent processing accreditations required by the EU.
"It is the most discerning market in the world," he said.
The Western Australian rock lobster is a relatively new product in Europe, and although strict handling and processing laws already govern the industry in this State, the EU requires its own strict accreditations.
Premier Geoff Gallop welcomed the decision, saying it was the result of a sustained, high-profile campaign waged over the past five years.
"With this latest EU decision, the western rock lobster industry is well placed to further entrench its status as one of the world's best managed commercial fisheries," he said.
The State Government contributed more than $50,000 to assist the industry in its campaign, which included personal representations by Dr Gallop to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
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