‘Going broke with freezers full of fish’: Wild barramundi industry at risk of collapse
Commercial barramundi fishermen say their industry has all but collapsed in Australia, after the price for wild-caught fish plummeted this season.
- Barramundi prices have crashed by up to 40 per cent this season
- But while anglers are getting as low as $14 per kilogram, retailers have maintained prices close to $40 per kilogram.
- The poor returns could force the closure of the NT industry, one angler said
It has meant some have had to pull up the anchor and call it quits as the cost to go out fishing is just too high.
Fisherman Craig Van Lawick said that scarier still is not just the woeful pricing, but the fact demand seems to have dried up completely.
The problems for fishers have been compounding into a perfect storm this season: some retailers have made the switch to a farmed product and there is also an oversupply of fish after two good seasons.
If the situation does not change next season, Mr Van Lawick said there would no longer be a wild-caught barramundi industry in the Northern Territory.
Mr Van Lawick started fishing on commercial charters when he was just 16, but his 30-year career has suddenly ground to a halt.
Just this week he let his staff go and told them to find other jobs, some who had been with him for 15 years.
"I'm a bit in shock. It's not quite real, is it?" Mr Van Lawick said.
"We've only got eight boats in the whole fleet so I know everybody.
"I think everybody is in a bit of denial about what's going on. How do you stop what you do? How do you stop fishing?"
Husband and wife team Mark and Maya Simlesa have been fishing since the 1970s and said they are also on the edge.
"We are also concerned about whether we can keep going, but having invested a lot of money and many years into this industry, it is not easy to withdraw," Maya Simlesa said.
'Wholesalers don't even want the fish'
Barramundi prices have crashed this season, down by up to 40 per cent with seemingly no warning.
The sudden drop has caught the industry unaware and some fishers simply cannot afford to go out to sea.
Fuel, nets, wages and supplies to ensure the boat can be totally self-reliant for the three-week journey's at sea, means one trip can cost around $30,000.
"How do you plan for that? I don't know any businesses that can plan for a 40 per cent drop in your income with no warning," Mr Van Lawick said.
"These boats cost a lot of money these days to refit every year, so we go to sea every year with our back against the wall on the assurance we can catch it, because it's a great sustainable fishery and we can always sell it."
He said in other seasons he had often pre-sold fish even before heading out, but now he has got freezers full of the product, unable to be sold.
"I think the worst thing is not even just the price drop — it's the fact that wholesalers don't even want the fish," he said.
"I rang around Australia to all my buyers — because a lot of our stuff goes all over the country — and people were telling me the same thing."
The head of the Barramundi Industry Association in the NT Jeff Newman also said it was a worrying time.
"I have been in the barramundi commercial sector for 40 years and have never seen it this bad as far as market share goes," he said.
Meanwhile, the retail price had barely changed — fishermen were getting as low as $14 per kilogram while the retailer was selling for about $40 per kilogram, leaving many asking where the margin was going.
But Seafood Industry Australia chairperson Veronica Papacosta said the margin was legitimate, and described the labour, manufacturing, infrastructure and merchandising costs retailers take on.
"Filleting requires highly skilled labour and Australian labour is not cheap," she said.
"I think what is not the case is that retailers are making a huge margin and fishermen are getting left out in the cold. I would disagree with that."
Oversupply, farmed fish, imports add to problem
Part of the issue is oversupply — two good wet seasons has meant plenty of fish.
Prior to that there was low breeding and therefore a high cost for the product, prompting some retailers to turn to farmed barramundi.
After making the switch, many retailers never looked back, as the consistency of all-year barramundi was more appealing.
"Given the distribution channels and how quickly they can get farmed barramundi to market, I think that's improved retailer confidence dramatically," Ms Papacosta said.
Dan Richards runs one of Australia's biggest barramundi farms and said there was room for everyone.
"We operate in quite different spaces so they can develop their markets, we can develop ours. There's plenty of space to go around," he said.
Others have said the NT Government's rigorous closures of many waterways to commercial fishermen — partly from pressure by recreational fishermen and Indigenous groups — has increased the time and money required to get the product back to market.
"We've watched our access being reduced, usually around election time when we start shutting down areas based not on science but elections," Mr Van Lawick said.
"I think that's a dangerous thing, I mean this is not unusual, it goes on around the world."
Many fishermen have now been forced to freeze their fish and compete in a market rife with cheaper imported barramundi.
The industry also blame a lack of labelling laws in Australia, saying if people knew whether they were eating farmed, wild-caught or imported barramundi they would be more discerning.
Seafood Council of the Northern Territory chief executive Katherine Winchester said 70 per cent of Australia's fish is imported and that figure is increasing.
The industry believes this is partly because food outlets are not required to declare the country of origin or type of seafood on sale.
"Lower quality seafood coming in means consumers [know they] are eating barramundi, but not necessarily what barramundi they are eating," she said.
"Is it Australian, wild-caught Australian, farmed or imported?
"The labelling laws are a really critical element to this because if you can't see your product in the marketplace, other products are going to replace it and the consumer unfortunately is none the wiser."
Ms Winchester said part of the solution would be to improve selling the product as a collective.
"Some of the fishermen who have done the marketing and branding and have got secure customers, they are doing OK," she said.
"But right now we are quite concerned that we are going to see impacts on the industry.
"It's urgent that all the fishermen come together to figure out how they're going to work together and we want to help them with the challenge."
But Mr Van Lawick said it could come too late.
"People are going to be forced to stop," he said.
"People are going to go broke with freezers full of fish.
"I think that's a horrible situation."