CEO Message – Local seafood security at risk under new plans

The year ahead for the fishing industry is likely to be very challenging with a range of factors likely to permanently impact upon the State’s seafood security.  We are already catching as many fish as possible within sensible management and sustainability settings, however in doing so we can now only meet 30 per cent of consumer demand.

This means that over 70 per cent of current consumption is imported from often unsustainable sources, or from overseas places where the workplace safety and pay rate conditions may be questionable.

Now with the likely loss of more valuable productive waters to marine park sanctuary zones and windfarms, the ability of our industry to continue to supply quality, fresh local fish to the WA community may be compromised.

It’s clearly a finely tuned balance between supply and demand, and even small adjustments to the equation can have significant impacts upon seafood availability and price.  WA has seen a clear example of this recently with fish supplies from the Kimberleys being interrupted by tropical weather systems and road closures.  It has been clearly evident over recent weeks that the volume and range of finfish on ice in metropolitan seafood outlets has been quite restricted and some consumer price rises have occurred as a result of competition from restaurants.

With projected weather forecasts indicating similar unsettled activity, it is possible the market impacts will continue and the WA public may well experience further shortages.  While this might relate to tropical conditions and therefore only last for the short term, it is a glaring reminder of what might permanently be the case if government does not stand up to protect the local fish supplies from the threats of way-over-the-top marine park sanctuary zones, or offshore windfarms, or coastal solar salt developments, if they proceed without adequate protection of the local fishing industry.   The bottom line is that the 70 per cent imported figure would rise towards 80 per cent and the local community will undoubtedly get really upset with government if this occurs.

Based on current trends and fishing reductions, it is not impossible to imagine a day when WA locals may not be able to buy WA snapper in a WA fish and chip shop.

As CEO of WAFIC, my role is primarily to represent the interests of the commercial fishers, however I regularly invest my out-of-hours time into getting a better appreciation of the supply chain and the consumer marketplace.  I rarely go past a seafood counter, or van, or fish and chip outlet without going in and asking lots of questions and can often be seen loitering around sales outlets watching and listening to the consumers. By doing this, I’ve learned one thing for sure, the WA public has a very deep and meaningful connection to the fishing industry and sees local seafood and the characters who catch it as an embedded part of their culture. The other thing that I’m absolutely certain, is that government does not have an appreciation of this connection.

The consequences of permanently forcing supplies down, to in-turn send prices up through the roof, will not be pretty. Particularly with a flood of very low-quality product being imported from the northern hemisphere right at the time when the inflation rate in WA is now a whopping eight per cent.

Just last week I saw imported seafood products on Perth shelves from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt and Tunisia, but imagine what the chilled sections will look like after WA’s fresh local fish supply is further impacted. Local customers will be outraged when they see the outcomes and can’t buy local seafood from local suppliers.

It’s worth noting that a recent study showed that over 90 per cent of tourists in regional areas want to experience local fish species as part of their holiday experience, in the same way they actively seek out local wines and agricultural products. So, we can expect to see a lot of unhappy people in WA as a result of any further loss of valuable productive fishing waters.

We’ve heard commitments from the Minister that he will make sure that marine park sanctuary zones will not happen if they have impacts upon commercial fishing. In fact, he stated there was no need for a compensation scheme on the south coast as his intention is to avoid commercial damage to fishers.  Well, this means that the current maps of draft sanctuary candidate areas we have seen will soon have to face major surgery, as it is likely that there will be no resident commercial fishers remaining in Esperance unless the closed areas are reduced to less than seven per cent of the park, which is a long way from the more-than 45 per cent currently under consideration.

Additionally, the impacts upon Albany-based fishers operating in Esperance waters will also be very considerable and their many wonderful popular fresh seafood outlets, such as the Boatshed Market, or Ocean & Paddock, or Hooked or Great Southern Seafoods, or Moby Dicks, or Albany Seafoods will not be able to secure sufficient local supplies to meet community demand. All of this is fully at risk from the marine park sanctuaries alone, even before factoring in the further potential losses of productive waters to offshore windfarms and the like.

In fact, I was in the Canning Vale fish markets a couple of weeks ago and the buyers were frustrated they couldn’t source anywhere near the fish they needed in Perth because of the local consumption on the south coast.

The Minister has set clear expectations within industry about the very high level of protection that he will exercise through his formal powers of concurrence for the marine park, so let’s support him as he soon delivers what he promised.