By Melissa Keogh
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.
“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.
“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.
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