CEO Message – Industry calls for support to secure sustainable, affordable and reliable seafood supply

It’s pretty evident here at WAFIC that the State’s commercial fishing industry has never been under such pressure, or even threat, on as many fronts as it is right now.

While each incremental development just by itself is potentially manageable, it’s the cumulative impacts – the “death by a thousand cuts” – which represent a challenge to the viability and operability of the industry – and what the community doesn’t yet fully appreciate, is a direct impact on our ability to provide them with fresh local seafood.

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The influences of COVID went well beyond the health portfolio – we also saw a rise in parochialism and loyalty towards WA products, with a consequent demand for our quality seafood noticeably rising.  The inability to get to Bali saw a flood of locals buying 4WDs and caravans and heading up the coast. With it saw a surge in culinary tourism as visitors sought out WA’s unique regional products – whether it was barramundi in Broome or prawns in Carnarvon or snapper in Shark Bay or scallops in Geraldton.

And our broader society learned all about the fragility of domestic and international supply chains, where one relatively minor action can have a compounding effect in many other places.  This in turn has embedded and reinforced a growing community consciousness of the importance of food security.

Putting all of these things together, there is a significant growing demand at a local level for our high-quality WA seafood products – the surge has simply never been greater.  One would think that’s a good thing – which of course to a certain extent it is – but there’s always a hook.

Our industry is currently catching every fish that it possibly can – within safe and sustainable limits that is.  While we export a narrow range of high-quality seafood products that the domestic market is unable to consume – such as rock lobster and abalone and deep sea crabs – the scalefish are fully taken up by the domestic market – they’re not exported.  In fact, we can only meet the demands of less than a third of the domestic market and right now, so 70% of consumption is supplied from overseas markets – yes, that’s from imports.

The current surge in local demand therefore cannot be capitalised upon by producing more fish, as we are already taking the maximum safe amount.  So what we are now seeing is a shortage of supply and prices are starting to rise at the consumer level, where demand is creating vigorous competition.  Over the past six months the price of local seafood in fish & chip shops has risen sharply and what was once cheap takeaway street food is now becoming an expensive commodity.

Yes many of our fishers are getting a rewarding share of this action – we are price takers rather than price makers – but many seafood outlets are now vigorously competing to secure the product they need to keep their shows alive.  But it’s hard when there is a finite amount of product to compete for.

I was really saddened to recently hear that a couple of my most favourite people in the industry – Laura and Lance from Jurien – are closing their fresh fish supply shop in the near future.  Believe it or not it’s the last surviving fish outlet between Perth and Dongara.

I always drop in and buy some fish when passing through and have heard first-hand over the past eighteen months or so the difficulty she has in maintaining a business which has such restricted supply. Here is a classic fresh fish supply outlet in a fishing community and smack bang next to a highway which carries thousands of tourists past their door every day.

And when the visitors or locals come to her counter, Laura has had to apologise that there’s simply not enough available fish in the market to meet their needs.  It seems inconceivable, but we’ve reached a point in WA where we can no longer meet community demand and that means more cheap imports.

And much worse, in that wonderful town of Jurien Bay we have the amazing Laura who has for so long been the engine room of the entire community – her voluntary efforts are stamped on anything and everything that happens to enrich the fabric of that town – and it would be a tragedy if she and Lance decide to leave altogether.

I’ve also heard that a fresh fish outlet in Albany has recently shut its doors and I’m getting consistent feedback from many people in the food supply and service industry that they are seriously struggling to source their needs.

So it’s clear that this emerging issue is much wider and deeper than first envisaged – it’s definitely not a passing phenomenon.

Of course some policy makers would stop reading and drop the case at this point in time and say that it’s classic supply and demand – and the fishers should be thankful that they can capitalise on better prices.  And of course we certainly are thankful and appreciative in that respect.

But here’s the rub, the settings are changing and glimpses of the potential longer term consequences are now emerging.  Large swathes of productive water are soon to be locked away in the Kimberley marine parks – not because the fisheries are unsustainable or we were doing environmental damage – but because DBCA bulldozed the consultation process.

The supply of fresh barramundi (which was all consumed in the Kimberleys) may well be halved – and who knows the price may soon go up to $60 a meal – and the local outlets will have to import some unsustainably sourced Asian sea bass as a cheap replacement.

The seismic exploration of Pilbara waters definitely has impacts on fish abundance, particularly with acoustically-sensitive species like mackerel which flee for the horizon when the sonic booms go off.

The oil and gas sector has more than a thousand oil wells that they are required to soon decommission and their clear preference is to cut them off and leave behind a stump or a tower lying on the ocean floor, it’s cheaper than extraction.

While this can be beneficial if done carefully, one wrong decision will leave a trawling risk with potentially fatal consequences – so WAFIC is closely engaged to try to secure positive outcomes.  However at the same time, we don’t want to see plastics and solvents or other environmentally unfriendly products of their rigs or pipelines left in the water.  If they get any of this wrong, it will have flow-on effects to the marine environment and future seafood sustainability, particularly as more than 50% of Perth’s fresh WA demersal scalefish is sourced directly from this critically important location.

We are also now seeing a plethora of industrial salt projects being placed along the coast between Karratha and Exmouth – and these individually and collectively create threats to sustainability, as they are placed over nursery grounds for prawns and emperor species.

Apart from a fleeting media release, we can’t get any details whatsoever about the newly announced Exmouth Gulf Marine Park but there are a number of commercial fishing operations in there which cannot afford to be impacted by closures.

In Shark Bay we have the Shark Bay Salt company – a subsidiary of Japanese giant Mitsui which claims in its PR materials to have an environmental conscience – and they’re proposing to dump dredge spoils inside the World Heritage Area to directly damage the prawn, scallop and crab industries – as well as the dugongs and turtles and dolphins as well.  The spoils can easily be dumped out at sea to clearly disperse, but the company took the cheap and nasty option and decided to sacrifice our interests in the shallow water habitats.

They did secure EPA approval but the problem is this – the EPA was only given one option from the proponents and under its procedures can only assess what it’s been given – it can’t suggest or explore safe alternatives – which is a clear shortcoming of the agency’s jurisdictional authority which definitely needs to be redressed.

Now we are seeing a flood of proposals for Offshore Wind Farms – the pile is literally growing on our desks each week.  We don’t get consulted, we’ve got to sniff them out and badger everybody to give us some basic details.

Some are in State waters, others in Commonwealth – and they’ve caught both governments with their pants down because there simply isn’t the approval frameworks and technical resources in place to manage the scale and impact of these projects which are coming left, right and centre.

We’re not saying they shouldn’t proceed – naturally the potential for large scale renewable energy is ultra-desirable for the broader community’s benefit – but we need an early seat at the table to ensure that they aren’t located on key habitats or the activities of commercial fishing aren’t going to be unduly frustrated.

In fact we see the potential for mutual benefits on a number of levels if we are given an early say, but at this stage we’re locked in the room out the back.

The other aspect is that some of these projects are purely speculative and governments at this point in time do not yet appear to have the structures and processes to weed through the chaff, nor is the interface between Commonwealth and State jurisdictions being satisfactorily addressed, it’s all a bit blurred.

In the meantime we see the Marmion Marine Park extending northwards with an as yet unknown impact on the seafood industry, while in the SW corner of the state we see the Ngari Capes Marine Park festering away with a compensation scheme unable to deliver an outcome four years after park gazettal – plus it’s now becoming evident that the displacement of fishing from sanctuary zones is concentrating efforts elsewhere – and without an adjustment scheme (which we have continually called for) knock-on pressures on sustainability will mount in the Ngari Capes region and the community’s access to optimal fish supplies may be further compromised.

We’ve seen the interests of commercial fishing displaced by aquaculture in Albany without compensation, despite significant efforts from WAFIC and local fishers to negotiate a win-win solution.

And of course we are now engaged in the process to develop the South Coast Marine Park and I’m unable to place my hand on my heart and report on a positive experience to date.

Would you believe that right now we have eco-scientists opportunistically calling for 30% of the waters to be locked away forever in sanctuary zones – yes that’s over 2000 square kilometres of water or more than 300 kilometres of coastline – this would unconscionably damage – and in some cases destroy – the livelihoods of a  number of individual south coast fishers.

Already 82% of shark landings in WA occur at the port of Esperance with much of the rest into Albany.  So the fish & chip shop owners across the state who are based on shark – and importantly their loyal customers – are going to cop the impacts of the south coast marine park right between the eyes unless common sense prevails.

And there are many other forces across the state with potential impacts on our industry – including desalination plants, ports and other industrial projects.

The point I am making is that the death by a thousand cuts is actually more like death by a couple of dozen cuts – and the increasing reduction in our ability to supply fresh fish at the very time that consumer demand and expectations are rising is going to drive prices northwards.  This will have other knock-ons, there will be an increase in the importation of foreign seafood, often caught unsustainably – and consumers will also look at protein substitution – not only is chicken at $10 per kilo a cheaper alternative, in many cases marbled Wagyu beef may comparatively become a bargain too.

Where am I going with all of this?  Well it’s critically important that society realises that the continued supply of fresh local fish is under threat from the cumulative impacts of industrial developments as well as marine park sanctuary zones.  The processes of government probably never envisaged the need to look at things holistically, so the approval processes are very much focused discretely on individual projects rather than the big picture.

WAFIC recently wrote to the Premier on this issue, we haven’t got an answer yet.  We explained the dynamic which currently exists, the disturbing trends and called for a Fishing Industry Impact Statement to be applied when government is considering the merits of new projects.  As it currently stands, we are not even consulted by the state’s economic development agency, the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation (JTSI) – so let’s face it, something needs to change.

We at WAFIC are taking a constructive approach towards this issue – we’re demonstrating the risks of the status quo and are seeking the formal opportunity for engagement to help identify the solutions for the future.  It’s not just the commercial fishing industry which will be impacted, importantly it’s the consumers who are looking for sustainable supplies of fresh local fish that will have their expectations permanently dented.

We thoroughly support economic development in this state but there needs to be a sensible balance – there is definitely considerable opportunity for win-win outcomes if we are provided with the opportunity for constructive input and engagement.

So that’s the core message we will be delivering at all levels to the key stakeholders and decision-makers – the cumulative impacts upon the fishing industry are starting to bite and they will have undesirable knock-on community effects at a number of levels – however with some positive adjustments to the way things are being done we can work side-by-side with governments and industrial project proponents to secure win-win outcomes.  We just need the opportunity to participate.  That sounds like a pretty good offer to me.