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New battle on the high seas

THE 2001-2002 lobster season kicked off last week amid a renewed battle for market share in the northern region, which is dominated by the Geraldton Fishermen’s Cooperative.

The last cooperative to remain standing on the WA coastal fishery, GFC is being challenged in its major market by the former Fremantle Fishermen’s Cooperative, which changed to an unlisted public company earlier this year, going by the title of Bluewave Seafood.

The Fremantle-based processor has tried once before to capture a slice of the northern action, but withdrew a couple of years ago amid financial turmoil in its operations and concerns among its southern region fishermen about the inequity in bonuses paid to their northern colleagues.

In the northern region, which starts at Greenhead, catches are dominated by a lobster variety call reds, which are more sought after in key Asian markets and therefore attract higher prices.

Operating in the southern/central regions, Bluewave has gone through a period of consolidation that its leadership believes has placed it in a better position to return to compete in the north.

But some in the industry question the strategy.

There are those who believe that, apart from the new company structure, the biggest change at Bluewave in recent times is the emergence of a strategic relationship with New Zealander George Stavrinos.

Bluewave will not discuss its relationship with Mr Stavrinos, except to say that the company has kept WA Fisheries fully informed of any arrangements.

Fisheries oversees the regulation of processing licences, a sensitive issue in the industry, particularly when foreign interests are discussed.

“It (Bluewave’s arrangements with Mr Stavrinos) meets the requirements under Fisheries policy,” Bluewave CEO Glen Bosman said.

A Fisheries spokesman confirmed that it had talked with Bluewave but added that the matter remained a subject of discussion.

“We are talking to them and just making sure the business arrangements are clarified to our satisfaction,” the Fisheries spokesman said.

Mr Bosman said the push into the north was not due to Mr Stavrinos’ involvement but a commercial decision made easier by the cooperative’s conversion into a company.

He said the WA catch this season was expected to be below average, with the biggest fall likely to be in the numbers of white lobster, the dominant variety in the southern fishery.

White numbers are expected to be down almost 30 per cent, due to the natural variations that are projected years ahead by Fisheries scientists.

Around 65 per cent of Bluewave’s 2000-01 catch of 1544 tonnes was the white variety.

“The value of the northern catch, (due to) timing, size and colour, is materially better than what we get down here,” Mr Bosman said.

“It is a commercial decision to go back there, it was not a commercial decision to leave there.”

Bluewave is confident of picking up 30 boats in the north, adding to about 80 boats already fishing for the group in WA waters.

Mr Bosman said southern fishermen had been convinced that Bluewave had to go back to the north and that it would benefit from the move, as would shareholders, with the change in structure allowing better profit sharing.

With bonus payments declared recently for last season typically paying $3/kg for reds and about 50 cents/kg for whites, it is easy to see why southern fishermen have shown resentment towards their northern rivals.

It is a fact that northern force, GFC, is happy to play on.

“We don’t mind competition at all,” GFC chairman John Fitzhardinge said.

“Unfortunately, it appears they (Bluewave) have chosen to not pay their fishermen in the south and transfer their money to the north.

“We treat all our fishermen equally.”

Mr Fitzhardinge said GFC had examined options to change its structure, looking at the model Wesfarmers used to emerge from a cooperative to become a leading listed company, but difficulties lay in such change.

“Other people in there would want some profit,” he said.

And that is something Bluewave also will have to consider.

The company hopes to have a prospectus prepared by the end of the month to go to shareholders and some potential investors to raise $5 million needed to build a new processing facility.

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