Port Lincoln’s southern bluefin tuna is nation’s greatest seafood success story

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By Melissa Keogh

Ask South Australian seafood industry spokesman Brian Jeffriess AM to describe the taste of a high quality southern bluefin tuna (SBT) and he struggles to find the words.

“It’s a spiritual experience – it’s that good,” he says.

After 30 years in Port Lincoln’s SBT industry, Brian’s fascination with the saltwater giants is yet to wear off and probably never will.

“Tuna must move one body length – an average of one metre – per second for 24 hours a day to wash enough oxygen over their gills to survive,” says the CEO of the Australian SBT Industry Association.

“It’s a very robust fish and we are lucky enough to have a top-class product here in SA.”

Brian Jeffriess, left, has been in the southern bluefin tuna industry for 30 years, watching the industry become a national success story.

SBT is SA’s largest single aquaculture product, with an overseas export worth $126m.

As the Eyre Peninsula’s most renowned seafood product, SBT is a large, red fleshed, sashimi grade fish that is highly sought after by the Japanese market.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Port Lincoln industry, which almost collapsed in the 1980s when the wild catch quota was cut by nearly 70%.

This caused major industry disruption, sending several local fisherman into receivership.

In 1988 Brian, a commodities specialist, was brought in to head the SBT Tuna Industry Association to help turn the fortunes around.

Southern bluefin tuna is a premium product on the Japanese sashimi market.

He came with vast business experience including various roles within the Department of Trade and Industry in Canberra, the OECD in Paris, and Mitsubishi Motors.

“In 1989 we decided to try this dream idea of tuna farming, no one had done it in the world but it was either that or bankruptcy,” Brian says.

“People never thought it would work, but there’s something in the DNA of Port Lincoln …”

SBT farming began in 1991 and was pioneered by first generation immigrants – most notably late Croatian Dinko Lukin.

Their innovative inventions saved the seaside town.

Southern bluefin tuna farm pontoons off Port Lincoln.

Now SBT is farmed by fishers who travel out to the Great Australian Bight and catch the species in a purse seine (net).

The fish are then carefully towed to ranching pontoons off Port Lincoln and fed sardines to aid further growth.

The sardine catch used to feed the tuna is the largest tonnage fishery in Australia.

“When the tuna are captured in the wild they weigh about 17kg each … they are towed to the pontoon over 15 days at one knot,” Brian says.

“The tuna mortality rate used to be 14% and now it’s only 1%.

“We taught the rest of the world to do it and we’ve gradually refined the process over the past 20 years.”

Once grown, 90% of the harvested tuna is frozen, while the other 10% is chilled and airfreighted.

Tuna rosettes at the Port Lincoln Hotel.

While more than 90% of SA’s SBT is exported to Japan, Brian says the domestic market is growing.

“The overall tuna industry is worth $400m and that’s understating it,” he says.

“The footprint of the industry on the Eyre Peninsula surprises even me.”

Living in Adelaide and travelling to Port Lincoln weekly, Brian was awarded Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the fishing and aquaculture industries.

He says there’s no better place to enjoy the fruits of the sea than the Eyre Peninsula.

“The whole natural environment, the beauty of the place and the climate is superb,” Brian says.

“Adelaide and Port Lincoln are very rare places in the world, there’s nothing in any European city like them.

“It’s as good as it gets.”

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