Net profits

fishThe stoush over prawn importation concerns might be over, but the domestic seafood industry is now facing pressure in the form of rising fuel costs and shrinking profits. Rachel Davis reports.

The quarantine measures for infectious hypodermal and hematopoeitic necrosis virus (IHHNV) were removed on September 12 this year, marking a victory for those who lobbied against Biosecurity Australia’s policy memorandum, announced in July 2007, which introduced the current testing and quarantine procedures for prawns. Testing for white spot syndrome virus (WSSV), yellowhead virus (YHV) and Taura syndrome virus (TSV) remains in place but is also under review.

Harry Peters from the Seafood Importers Association has been lobbying to get the testing procedures, which have driven the price of imported prawns up, removed since their introduction. “The testing isn’t about protecting our prawns from disease, it’s about political protectionism of the Australian industry,” he says.

“There was no legal justification for the introduction of the testing procedures and now that we have evidence of IHHNV in our domestically grown prawns, what justification can there be for the continuation of testing? The Australian Government has personally inspected and licensed every facility in Thailand capable of exporting a quality product. I’m not interested in bringing in substandard prawns and we never have, our imports are of the highest quality.” Peters is confident that the last testing requirements will be relaxed further in the coming months.

“We are in discussions about the other viruses currently being tested for and, let me make this clear, our approach has been a scientific one,” says Peters. “We have tested domestic prawns and found traces of IHHNV and we have also received advice that it may be present in live broodstock prawns caught from the wild. If, as I believe, this is the case, what is the rationale behind continuing testing for viruses already present in our domestic product?

“This is the crux of the issue. The problem is that our seafood industry is suffering from multiple pressures, including the closure of fishing grounds, the high dollar and rising fuel prices,” he continues. “But that’s no reason to stop the importation of foreign prawns; the industries should be able to work together. In five years’ time, the Australian consumer will be eating more imported prawns, because our local industry isn’t capable of producing a well priced, consistent product. What I want to see is some marketing initiatives to help the domestic industry move forward and become sustainable.”

Protection or protectionism?

“We have never lobbied against importation based on economic grounds,” says Robin Hansen from the Queensland Seafood Industry Association. “We lobbied on environmental grounds and any relaxation of the testing procedures poses a real threat to our domestic industry. And the importation of prawns poses a threat to the biosecurity of our stocks.

“The IHHNV found in domestic stock is supposed to be 98 per cent similar to the virus found in Asian prawns. These viruses are devastating to the industry and have the potential to change our fisheries beyond recognition.”

When WSSV first hit China in 1993, a million people lost their jobs and the virus only took a few years to sweep through Asian prawn fisheries. “The problem with WSSV, in particular, is how quickly it can kill the animals. Prawns don’t have an immune system, so you can see 100 per cent mortality in a relatively short period of time,” says Hansen. “Yes, they will build up a tolerance and stocks can eventually recover, but this is really a case of short term gain and long term pain. When you play with any natural environment, there are consequences and the problem with this particular issue is, no-one fully understands what will happen. We need to protect our fisheries for the future and ensure that we have an industry in the long term.

“But, at the end of the day, it is the consumer who will decide which product they purchase. Our industry is slowly building back up—but now we have the rising cost of fuel. We need to find alternative ways of catching the fish and make it economically viable for fishermen to fish again.  I believe if we properly educate the market and develop a product that the consumer wants and is happy to pay for, then the future is bright.”

The future for fishing

“Stopping prawn importation isn’t about economics,” says Ted Loveday, Seafood Services Australia Managing Director. “It’s about protecting our environment and decisions about testing should be scientifically based. We don’t want to put trade barriers in place, but we should make sure that our local stock is protected as much as possible.

“We have always imported seafood into Australia because we don’t produce as much as we consume. Traditional seafood exports have been the higher end products—lobsters and abalone—but with the strong dollar, it is obviously a challenge for local producers to sell overseas. It’s generally misunderstood how much of our seafood is sold in overseas markets, only 25-30 per cent of our product is exported, but this equates to 70-80 per cent in value because of the type of seafood we export.”

The quarantine and trade control issues have become muddied in the last few years, but the long term future of the Australian industry is a separate issue. “The main problem we are facing is the fuel costs and, I don’t know how at this stage,  we need to invest seriously in finding other ways to catch the product,” said Loveday.

“The industry will have to change. The future should be about alliances among prawn aquaculture, wild catch and importers. In the long term, the three separate arms of the same industry are not each other’s competitors and should be able to operate in the same market profitably. We need to ramp up marketing, inform consumers about the health benefits of seafood. You see meat producers advertising the health benefits of their product; the seafood industry needs to do the same—develop a cohesive marketing strategy that encompasses all sectors of the market. Protect our catch from disease, yes, I fully support that, but let’s move towards a co-operative seafood industry that can make profits together.”

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