Port Lincoln’s tuna industry explores further export markets

South Australia’s bluefin tuna industry – often recognised as Port Lincoln’s greatest seafood success story – is increasing exports beyond its key market of Japan.

Industry spokesman Brian Jeffriess says that while Japan will remain the southern bluefin tuna’s main export market in the long term, the industry had recently increased its trade to Korea and China.

“Most of the tuna – 98% – is going to Japan, that was until about five years ago,” says Brian, CEO of the Port Lincoln-based Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association.

“Since then we’ve increased our exports to Korea and China considerably and we’re hoping to achieve a higher level this year – about 5% of our total exports – but for all premium tuna producers in the world, countries like in the Mediterranean, Canada and the US, Japan will certainly remain the main market for a long time.”

Southern bluefin tuna is highly sought after in Japan and consumed as sashimi, a delicacy consisting of usually fresh, raw fish sliced into bite-sized pieces.

The southern bluefin tuna is a prized saltwater giant.

“Sashimi is a tradition, they (the Japanese) have been accustomed to very high-quality tuna that most countries just haven’t had access to,” Brian says.

“It’s a buoyant economy in Japan so demand is very strong, so there’s no reason to think that market will reduce. The problem for us is having an over-dependence on a single market and a single currency because we get paid in yen.

“That provides challenges every year, so we have diversified into Korea and China and we hope to take that even further in the next five years.”

Brian says the domestic market for southern bluefin tuna is also increasing.

“The domestic market is quite small and the reason for that is there are so many other tunas available to restaurants on the east coast, but some of our farmers are trying very hard to penetrate the domestic market,” he says.

“Last year was the best year we’ve had, it was about 220 tonnes to the domestic market. Five years ago it was 40 tonnes, so it’s growing all the time.”

The Australian tuna industry farms about 8500 tonnes a year with 99.9% of it heading overseas, worth $150 million.

Sashimi is a delicacy popular in Japan.

“When you turn that into total income to the region and jobs it’s very substantial and by far the largest aquaculture export in Australia, and it’s consistent and growing,” Brian says.

“It (the tuna industry) certainly underpins the Eyre Peninsula economy … the official figure is about 850 jobs in the industry itself and another 1000 at least … if you look at the hospitality industry in Port Lincoln, a lot of it – the marina, the hotels, the accommodation – was developed on tuna money.”

Southern bluefin tuna is farmed by fishers who travel out to the Great Australian Bight to catch the species in a purse seine (net). Over two weeks the tuna are slowly towed to static ranching pontoons off Port Lincoln.

The tuna are fed sardines – an industry in itself that is the largest tonnage fishery in the country – and once grown, the majority of the harvested tuna is processed and shipped directly from Port Lincoln. A smaller amount – about 10% – is chilled and flown to Japan, where it can land within two days of processing.

Australia’s main competitor in the Japanese market is Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Malta, however, SA has the logistical advantage of a shorter airfreight time to Asia.

“Obviously to fly big fish from there (the Mediterranean) to Japan is expensive and challenging at times,” Brian says.

“Ours is quite simple due to the credits of the transport agencies that exist in Australia. People don’t realise how efficient Australia is in terms of a lot of things; transport, processing in factories, people here really do work hard.”

Port Lincoln’s southern bluefin tuna story dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the unregulated fishery was booming. But by the late ’70s the industry was warned that the species was being overfished and in 1984, fishermen were issued quotas to prevent exploitation of the industry.

With the wild catch quota cut by almost 70%, hardworking migrant fishermen in Port Lincoln revolutionised the industry to ensure the fishery could survive, by moving away from poling individual wild fish and towards tuna farming.

Many of Port Lincoln’s pioneering tuna fishers have since gone on to establish leading seafood enterprises, including German Hagen Stehr and Croatians Sam Sarin and Tony Santic, turning the town’s fortunes around.

Brian was brought in to head the tuna industry association in the late ‘80s, bringing with him vast business experience in various highly regarded roles. He says the performance of Port Lincoln’s overall seafood industry on a global scale is “remarkable”.

“Prawns, mussels, oysters, and now with abalone farming as well, the potential growth is remarkable and Port Lincoln will be the centre of it,” he says.

“It’s not just because of the environmental qualities, it’s the people. You can have a lot of positive driving factors like the environment, transport networks, things like that, but it’s the people that make successful businesses.”

Today, six countries are part of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, with catch allowances increasing in recent years as stocks recover.

Industry in focus: Trade and Investment

Throughout the months of January and February, the state’s trade and investment industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

South Australia is in a prime position for trade and investment opportunities as we have a 24-hour connection to international markets and a prime reputation for our premium products and services.  Read more trade and investment stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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Diversification the name of the game for Daryl

Port MacDonnell’s Daryl Prunnell is a man on a mission.

He wants to improve the economic growth of South Australia’s South East and encourage the next generation of critical thinkers to stay in the region.

Daryl has a plan to transform a redundant crayfish factory and adjoining land into a fish and rock lobster farm, with additional plans for complementary accommodation, a restaurant, research and development and educational facilities on the site.

Recently, his entrepreneurial thinking and enterprising spirit have seen him win silver at the inaugural Limestone Coast eNVIe Awards.

The win will take him and fellow eNVIe Award winner and Mt Gambier headwear accessories design Ashlee Kalantarian, to Silicon Valley, Austin and New York City to visit other innovative thinkers, learn how to pitch business ideas, and take part in networking opportunities.

Member for Barker Tony Pasin, left, with Limestone Coast locals Katie Fox of Little Pink Box, Ashlee Kalatarian of Ashlee Lauren Designs, Daryl Prunnell and Professor Clare Pollock of Flinders University.

The award marks Daryl’s completion of the Venture Dorm program, a course that provides hand-on training for people who want to build and market new ventures.

The Venture Dorm program is run by Flinders University’s New Venture Institute on the Limestone Coast and aims to foster early start-ups and business innovations.

Daryl, who moved back to Mt Gambier from the Northern Territory with wife Irma in 2012, sprouted his aquaculture idea three-four years ago.

“We bought the old factory about four years ago, and when the blocks of land next door came up for sale we bought those as well,” he says.

“During winter, the blocks get inundated with rainwater and groundwater, and I made a comment one day that it was so wet you could grow fish in there.

“Then I started to think – well, actually we could do that…”

Daryl Prunnell has a plan to develop a fish farm featuring rock lobster and Atlantic salmon that would showcase local produce to tourists. Photo courtesy of The Border Watch.

Daryl has been undertaking a diverse range of farming practices on their 40ha property, including running pasture-fed free-range chickens for eggs, as well as cross-bred lambs, Black Angus cattle and bees.

“The fish farm is another diversification for us,” he says.

“Back in Darwin I was a very keen fisherman. I was up there during the boom construction period, where everyone had the big toys and the big salaries and the charter companies had enough business to run two charters a day.

“At this time I saw the incredible damage that was being done to the fish populations and the waterways, so I feel like a sustainable fish farm with an educational facility would be popular and beneficial.”

Heading to the US in March 2019, he says he’s looking forward to “meeting and spending time with people who think outside the box”.

Until then, he is hoping to keep the train moving, with funding and investment opportunities coming up.

“Our next step is to commission some concept drawings and have costings completed for the first stages of development,” he says.

“I hope that by March we will be progressing very well, and I would like to think we will be up and running by Christmas 2019.”

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Port Lincoln students prepare for aquaculture workforce

Eyre Peninsula students will have access to hands-on training in the aquaculture industry through a partnership between the Port Lincoln High School and TAFE SA.

The joint initiative will allow senior students to enter the workforce earlier, with students able to complete a Certificate II in Aquaculture in Year 11.

By Year 12 students can then complete the units from the Diploma of Aquaculture at school, before completing the one-year diploma in six to eight months after graduation.

Students will then be equipped with the skills to enter the workforce or go on to study marine biology and aquaculture at Flinders University.

Previously, students were only able to complete the Certificate II at school before waiting until finishing school to tackle the diploma.

The majority of training will be undertaken at the Port Lincoln High School’s aquaculture training facility.

Port Lincoln is regarded as the seafood capital of Australia and is home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the southern hemisphere.

Photo: PIRSA.

TAFE SA aquaculture lecturer Brent Smith says with continued growth in seafood demand domestically and globally, it’s more important than ever to ensure the future aquaculture workforce has the highest level of skill and training.

“More than 2/3 of the state’s aquaculture workforce is employed in the Eyre Peninsula region alone,” he says.

“There is strong demand for workers on tuna, mussel, oyster, kingfish and abalone farms as well as many more in hatcheries, processing, marketing, transport and other related activities.”

Students will learn a range of skills including filleting fish, feeding, handling and harvesting stock, developing an aquaculture breeding strategy and various other maritime skills.

Port Lincoln High School aquaculture teacher Chris McGown says the partnership with TAFE SA will give students the basic skills needed to work in the industry or pursue further study.

“We have a massive aquaculture industry on our doorstep – most of the town is employed in some way through aquaculture,” he says.

“There are oysters, abalone, and tuna farms as well as factory workers – there is an abundance of opportunities and students haven’t previously had access to this sort of pathway.”

According to the Department of Primary Industries and Research SA (PIRSA), the aquaculture industry is one of the largest primary production sectors in the state.

The majority of SA’s aquaculture farming lies in the coastal waters of the Eyre Peninsula, while 81% of the state’s regional aquaculture workforce is employed in the region.

For more information visit the TAFE SA website.

Want to know what it’s like to work in Port Lincoln’s seafood industry? Check out the I Choose SA video below!

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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From bait to plate – top restaurants snapping up SA pipis

Thirty years ago it was unusual to spot the Goolwa pipi anywhere but on the end of a fishing hook.

Now the small surf clams – locally known as pipis or cockles – are dished up at some of the finest restaurants, and Australia’s largest pipi fishery Goolwa Pipi Co wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Port Elliot-based company’s managing director Tom Robinson says pipis are in high demand as South Australia continues to be recognised internationally for its world-class produce.

“In the early 2000s less than 1% of commercially farmed pipis were for sold human consumption, but now 80% of our pipis are sold for food,” he says.

“Like many things, you could once only get squid as bait. Now it’s a delicacy and it’s the same with pipis.

“It almost seems sacrificial to put them on a hook.”

Australia’s best restaurant Orana in Adelaide, as well as Iberia and Africola are some of the top establishments that are cooking with SA pipis.

Aside from experiencing demand from the local restaurant industry, Goolwa Pipi Co is preparing to enter export markets in Europe.

Its credentials include Marine Stewardship Certification while the SA Shellfish Quality Assurance Program reguarly tests the waters to ensure pipis are safe for eating.

The pipis are harvested from surf beaches on the south east side of the Murray Mouth, off a remote part of the Coorong National Park.

Fishers stand in shallow water while burrowing their feet into the sand, where the pipis are found, raked in and scooped into nets.

The Hoad fishing crew dig for pipis, using their feet to penetrate the sand, bringing the pipis to the surface.

The Hoad fishing crew dig for pipis in the sand off a remote part of the Coorong National Park.

Goolwa Pipi Co fishes year-round, harvesting up to one tonne of pipis per day.

They’re taken to the company’s Port Elliot processing centre where they are immersed in tanks of salt water for a day  and naturally rid themselves of sand.

The pipis are packed in Modified Atmosphere Packaging or are immediately blast-frozen.

Goolwa Pipi Co was launched in 2014 by a collaboration between a small number of families, including third-generation fishing family the Hoads.

Tom says the business collaboration between families is the key to the company’s success as it allows them to share risks and costs.

For Tom himself, a former advertising executive, the seafood industry was relatively unfamiliar territory until 15 years ago when he decided it was time for a literal sea change.

“I was working a desk job in Adelaide and I left to become a fisherman,” he says.

Tom confesses that he’s better at the paperwork side of the business, preferring to leave the harvesting to the trained team of professionals.

“I don’t do it because I’m not tough enough,” he laughs.

“But our teams fish in temperatures of around 10C and they’re in the water in shorts and bare feet in the middle of winter.”

Goolwa pipis with garlic, butter, tarragon, parsley capers and lemon.

Goolwa pipis with garlic, butter, tarragon, parsley, capers and lemon.

He points out the difference between cockles and pipis.

“The mud cockles that are harvested off Coffin Bay near Port Lincoln are the true cockles,” he says.

“These cockles have a ridged shell, whereas pipis have a smooth shell.”

Tom says the business is collecting more pipis than ever since a quota system was introduced in 2008 to stop the species from being overfished.

“SA fisheries are some of the best in the world and it’s great for us to be able to harvest in a sustainable fishing environment,” he says.

“Our stock levels are healthy and we’re confident we’re fishing in a sustainable way.”

Restrictions apply for recreational pipi fishers. For information on limits and closed areas see here.

Header image is Fleurieu food identity Olaf Hansen.

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