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Levy plan for nature’s abalone

Edition 188_Lisson

Close involvement in the Chinese market and a levy-funded marketing effort to promote the virtues of wild abalone are keys to the future of a charismatic Tasmanian industry.

Until the start of this century, Australia was the dominant supplier of abalone globally, with about 50 per cent of market share.

Tasmania contributed about half of Australia’s total catch, but its investors, business operators, skippers, divers and deckhands have experienced an unprecedented reduction in their market share over just 17 years.

Due to the rapid growth of abalone aquaculture worldwide, Australian wild-harvest abalone now represents less than 3 per cent of total global supply.

“This trend makes it vitally important for us to differentiate wild-caught abalone and to position it as a super-premium product,” the Hobart-based Chairman of Abalone Council Australia Ltd, Dean Lisson, said.

“Our wild abalone is completely natural, it’s healthy, delicious and sustainably harvested.”

Mr Lisson, who is also Chief Executive of the Tasmanian Abalone Council, is driving the concept of a national levy to lift the wild-caught abalone brand.

As a national exercise, such a levy would be administered by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in Canberra.

But it is fundamentally important to the $300 million-a-year Tasmanian industry.

“Tasmania is the biggest contributor to the national industry and will be the biggest beneficiary of the promotion that a levy will drive,” Mr Lisson said.

“The State produces 50 per cent of the nation’s wild abalone and is home to a good percentage of Australia’s 850 industry stakeholders who will ultimately decide whether the levy goes ahead or not.”

Mr Lisson is encouraged by the fact that 80 per cent of Australia’s abalone exporters (measured by value and volume of sales) have joined the AWA®(Australian Wild Abalone) program since it was launched in China seven years ago.

In keeping with the importance of the Chinese market, AWA® was unveiled in Shanghai in 2010.

“Importers in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan are encouraging us to commence AWA® in-market promotion,” Mr Lisson said.

“Whenever and wherever we talk about the AWA® Program with importers, wholesalers, F&B managers and executive chefs, the most frequently asked question is 'why wasn’t this done years ago?'

“A very considerable amount of time, effort and resources have been devoted to this initiative which is obviously fundamentally important for our industry’s future.”

Mr Lisson said "fantastic support" was flowing from all sectors of the supply chain, including exporters, importers, hotels, restaurants and food retailers.

A small team has conducted in-market research regarding attitudes to Australian wild abalone in China and Hong Kong since 2010. More recently, this activity has been extended to Singapore and Japan.

The research creates a knowledge base for the AWA® Program.

“Our decreasing market share makes it more important than ever for us to stand out from the crowd and ensure our future,” Mr Lisson said.

“We need to work together to effectively differentiate our product and to promote and market it in key international markets.

“We have been travelling around Australia since October 2016 to brief industry stakeholders in each of the five abalone-producing States on the levy proposal.”

Meanwhile, abalone exporter Ralph’s Tasmanian Seafood completed a merger in August with New Zealander firm PauaCo, creating Australasia’s largest abalone processor and exporter.

PauaCo has been a leading force in canned abalone (known by its Maori name, pāua, in New Zealand). The company supplies retail and catering markets in South East Asia.

Ralph’s has complementary expertise in the supply of live, wild-caught abalone to China.

The Chairman of PauaCo, David Hogg, said: “At the very heart of this deal is better utilisation of a wild resource and growth in the value of that resource for all of the stakeholders involved.”

The combined entity is the world’s largest supplier of wild abalone.

The consolidation should lead to greater distribution access for live pāua and better utilisation of Australian abalone not able to be sold into live markets.

Formed in 2012, PauaCo is the result of a consolidation of a number of smaller fishing and processing businesses. It is privately owned by fishers and independent shareholders.

Ralph’s, on the shores of North West Bay in southern Tasmania, was founded in 1996 and operates a modern fleet of "mother boats" supported by temperature-controlled land vehicles.

Abalone consumption has at least a 40,000-year history in Tasmania.

It was an important protein source for the first Tasmanians and later helped hungry settlers through the lean early years of the Van Diemen’s Land colony.

Recreational diving remains popular and most long-established Tasmanian families have their favourite "ab" recipes.

Tasmania’s professional divers harvest more than 1,500 tonnes of live weight abalone a year, operating within a science-based quota system.

More than 95 per cent is exported, principally, to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan.

A new price record of $85 a kilo was reached in China earlier this year.

Most of the annual catch is exported in live form, with the balance processed into canned, dried, frozen or vacuum-packed formats.

Export revenue of about $100 million a year generates an estimated $300 million of associated economic activity.

The industry pays more than $30 million in wages a year for harvesting (divers and deck hands), processing (factory workers, truck drivers and administrators), marketing and exporting (managers and consultants) and service industries (mechanics, technicians, welders and boilermakers).

Industry players have a long history of providing investment capital to other areas of Tasmanian commerce.

This has benefitted enterprises in agriculture, including viticulture and wine making, retail, wholesale, property development, tourism and aquaculture.

Image courtesy of Dean Lisson

3 October 2017, Edition 188

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