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State Scene - Meanwhile, back at the ranch

TWO Geraldton-based fishing companies – Latitude Fisheries and Tohzai King – are gearing up to agist fish at sea.

Under the plan, a network of cone-shaped mostly submerged dolphin and seal-proof pens capable of holding 40 tonnes of live yellowfin tuna would be anchored in the shadow of WA’s most vicious mass killing site.

The location being assessed is within the Abrolhos Archipelago, 60km off Geraldton, which, in 1629, was the sight of murderous carnage by Dutch religious fanatic Jerome Cornelius and his followers.

Cornelius led a mutiny aboard the Dutch East India Company (DEICo) flagship Batavia as it approached WA, then called New Holland.

But before off-loading unwanted crew and passengers near Geraldton and sailing to the Mediterranean to raid European shipping from ports controlled by the Bey of Algeria, Batavia struck reefs and sank.

However, DEICo commander Francis Pelsaert managed to reach present-day Jakarta after an epic month-long open boat voyage.

Pelsaert promptly returned to the Abrolhos with reinforcements and inflicted revenge upon Cornelius and his followers, who over three months had massacred 126 crew and women and children.

The waters identified by Geraldton’s tuna ‘ranching’ promoters are about seven kilometres off Pelsaert Island and have the necessary attributes for an ocean agisting venture – 35-metre deep waters, sandy ocean floor and protection from rough open seas.

The area has been judged as easily managed without measurable impact on the surrounding marine environment because the bottoms of the 10-metre high pens would hover well above the sea floor, meaning adequate space for tuna pollutants to rapidly dissipate.

Similar tuna agisting ranches anchored off Port Lincoln, 276km west of Adelaide, inspired the Abrolhos plan.

Port Lincoln boasts Australia’s largest commercial fishing fleet.

Its tuna ranches earn $250 million annually on the lucrative Japanese market.

Port Lincoln also boasts kingfish, mussel, oyster, abalone and experimental lobster farms.

The town’s many multi-millionaire fishermen are among South Australia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs.

That’s why a WA fishermen’s fact-finding delegation, which included five State MPs, visited Port Lincoln last month.

Geraldton mirrors Port Lincoln in several ways – it is an isolated regional centre, it’s a port, has a lobster industry and a sizeable export-oriented agricultural sector.

Where Port Lincoln excels, however, is as a tuna ranching and processing centre – Australia’s most prosperous, innovative and progressive, by far.

Its youth unemployment is negligible. The tuna industry directly employs 1000 people and a further 5000 indirectly.

John Isle, WA-owned MG Kailis’s Port Lincoln operations manager, said: “Take the tuna industry out of Port Lincoln and you would have a mass of 17-25 year old males with no money and no prospect.

 “There’s no doubt this species represents a contemporary gold rush for Port Lincoln.”

The Abrolhos plan envisages catching up to 200 tonnes of tuna at a time off the Pilbara coast and very slowly towing the caught schools inside huge oval-sized nets to Pelsaert Island for transfer into the anchored ocean pens. Geraldton’s ocean agisting plan would mean 500 regional jobs. These would include trained tuna feeders, divers and process workers.

The industry relies heavily on underwater monitoring of tuna via the use of video cameras.

The voracious captured tuna would be kept in the submerged pens for about four months, where they would be videod, diver monitored and fed with locally caught pilchards.

The tuna ranching plan means birth of a new industry for WA’s Mid-West region with the potential to rapidly grow into a $100 million export earner.

Japanese buyers have paid more than $40,000 a tonne for Port Lincoln bluefin tuna.

Although bluefin flesh attracts higher prices than yellowfin, returns from the latter are still extremely attractive at $30 a kilogram.

Upper House MLC John Fischer, who accompanied the WA fact-finding team, said the contribution of tuna ranching to Port Lincoln was astounding,

“We hope to see it copied and even bettered by Geraldton and elsewhere in WA if possible,” he said.

Blue and yellowfin tuna spawn in the Timor Sea, then migrate southwards along Australia’s west coast.

Yellowfin only go as far as the Abrolhos Archipelago, however, while bluefin press on around Cape Leeuwin and on to New Zealand, thus passing Port Lincoln.

Port Lincoln’s tuna fishermen are allocated annual agisting quotas by Canberra – as Geraldton’s would be – permitting them to net schools, which are then transferred into their ranch pens for fattening.

Although tuna are agisted off western Mexico and the Canary Islands, details on both operations are scarce, meaning the co-operation and generosity being shown by Port Lincoln’s fishermen is deeply appreciated.

Interestingly, in 2000 WA’s Department of Fisheries published a report titled “Aquaculture Plan for the Houtman Abrolhos Islands”, which said: “The ranching of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) may be proved feasible, based on the success of South Australia’s bluefin tuna industry”.

Latitude Fisheries and Tohzai King hope to remove the departmental doubts and, in the process, commence transforming long-line and net fishermen into tuna ranchers.

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