The lobster beach price has plummeted from highs of up to $90 a kilogram in January to $20 this week. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
Australia’s biggest wild-caught fishery is trying to secure an air freight charter to China to maintain a foothold in the world’s biggest seafood market — and possibly bring back medical supplies to Australia on the return trip.
- China’s demand for live lobster fell off a cliff in late January as the COVID-19 crisis became more serious
- The industry was at that stage worth up to $500 million per year
- Demand has returned but there are few available flights to get the product into China
The western rock lobster industry was worth up to $500 million a year before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and about 95 per cent of the product was air freighted to China.
Trade was halted on January 24 as Chinese authorities began widespread lockdowns to contain coronavirus.
A trickle of trade resumed in February and demand has steadily grown since then — and around 80 per cent of vendors have resumed trading at China’s biggest seafood market in Guangzhou.
However, as demand has risen, access to China has shrunk and the industry lost its last scheduled flight into China from Perth this week.
Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op’s has a major live storage facility at Perth airport. Previously 95 per cent of product out of WA was sent to China. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
WA’s four main lobster processing companies, led by the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative (GFC), have been negotiating with five airlines this week to secure a deal to export a weekly shipment of 30 tonnes of live lobster.
Scrambling for trade route via Japan
The GFC’s chief executive Matt Rutter said the industry was hoping to use existing passenger flight codes into the Japanese trade hub, Narita, which have been grounded and have landing rights up to three times per week.
The lobsters would then be flown to Guangzhou.
Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op chief executive Matt Rutter hopes to get West Australian product to market in Guangzhou, China. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
“We’ve been scrambling to try and find a solution to keep all of our people in a job and keep our boats on the water,” Mr Rutter said
“Then we can keep all of the important export earnings coming into the country as well as maintaining supply to our customers.”
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He said cost was still an issue at a time when lobster prices had plummeted and overheads were increasing.
Flights could bring back medical supplies
The processers are negotiating with Federal and WA governments to bring back freight, including medical supplies.
“You pay a premium for flying the plane empty so anything we can get on the back freight would be of benefit,” Mr Rutter said.
“We are very keen to make that available to the Government first and foremost if they need it for medical supplies and respirators and those sorts of things.
“Anything we can get on back freight will help us with the rate.
“We’ve been really encouraged by the way the Federal and State Governments have worked with us on this, we’re hoping we can get a model that will work for other industries as well.”
Lobster prices plummet
After lobster prices reached highs of up to $90 a kilogram in January, the beach price for the state’s 640 licensed fishers dropped as low as $20 a kilogram this week when the last flight to China was cancelled.
The western rock lobster industry was worth up to $500 million a year before COVID-19 hit. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
Mr Rutter said he hoped the price would recover to at least $25 if an air freight charter could be confirmed, beginning next week.
The co-owner of the Indian Ocean Rock Lobster company, Michael Thompson, said domestic demand for lobster had been strong but collapsed when Melbourne’s Formula One Grand Prix was cancelled.
Export markets to Japan and the United States were also shrinking due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Getting fishermen ‘back to work’ a priority
Mr Thompson said oversupply was an issue in China and as the world’s seafood exporters clamour for a share of the recovering market the industry would need a measured approach.
“At this stage I just think it’s more important that we get product trickling into China, and rather than rush it in there 30 tonnes a week gets the wheels turning again,” Mr Thompson said.
“The Chinese have got to start from zero base and start opening their restaurants and [need] people getting the confidence that we are lacking at the moment.
“Trying to get fishermen back to work so they can actually put food on the plate has been the industry’s and the processors’ priority.”
Western Rock Lobster Council chief executive Matt Taylor said the WA Government had reduced the total allowable catch and extended the current season until June next year to try to avoid any oversupply.
He said it was too early to measure the full impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
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