A global perspective on a local industry: Globalised Seafood Markets and Our Current Position in Them

22nd May 2014

By Wayne Dredge, Nuffield scholarship recipient.

While in New York recently I visited the second largest seafood market in the world, New Fulton Fish Market. It was Easter week so I was dismayed, although not surprised, to discover not one item from Australia. I counted thirty nine represented countries with an extraordinary range of products that ranged from bulk wholesale commodity products right through to niche markets. Despite our New Zealand cousins having eleven wild capture products in the market Australia had none.

For the previous six weeks I had taken part in a Global Focus Program run by Nuffield Australia. It had taken me from shanty towns in South Africa, to a school run by a former Kenyan Army Major General and national hero, to one of the last great cattle ranches of East Africa, to dining with a Russian Oligarch who was agriculture minister during the Chechen war of 1999, through the old Eastern Bloc of Europe, into the last major European manufacturing powerhouse of Germany, into the corridors of power in Washington DC and finally to the very centre of US agriculture in Nebraska. Having finished the focus program I spent a week studying the seafood markets of the city that never sleeps. So what does this have to do with commercial fishing in Australia? The answer is everything.

Lessons learned from other production sectors are invaluable and it is this that Nuffield provides better than anyone. Globally the most successful primary production industries, and the ones with the greatest longevity, are not simply those with high production, high growth, low costs or high revenue and profits. The best production industries across the world are those who own their product from producer to consumer. In the business world it’s referred to as vertical integration and by achieving this they own their products story which is a powerful marketing tool and creates a direct connection with customers.

Twenty years ago most Australians knew a farmer or fisherman. With the rapid urbanisation that has occurred globally since the eighties and early nineties the fact is this isn’t the case any more. The result is a chasm has developed between urban consumers and producers. Every vendor I spoke to at New Fulton lamented that within five years it was likely the market would be reduced to minimal capacity or cease altogether. Asked why the response was unanimous, “small stores, restaurants and customers are dealing directly with producers.” Visiting retail stores and restaurants in Manhattan this was obvious, one restaurant even had photos on the wall of three Boston based fishing vessels that supplied it directly. Weekend street markets had fisherman selling their own products on Manhattan’s streets. The other glaring fact was that by reducing the value chain links between consumer and producer the end customer felt closer to knowing where their food came from which went a long way to filling that chasm.

Talking with the store manager of Citarella’s, a long time NYC seafood retailer and main wholesale provider to many of Manhattan’s thirty thousand restaurant’s, it was even more obvious. Citarella’s have done everything possible to reduce the links between production and customer, the economic benefits to all have been significant. When asked whether they experienced any sustainability concerns from customers about their wild capture products the answer was a resounding “no”. Creating an environment where customers felt closer to fisherman a greater element of trust naturally occurred. This resulted in a better public image for capture fisheries in their local region.

So where has Australia gone wrong? We are constantly improving practices, have some of the most conservative, well managed fisheries in the world and produce a product that is world class. Since beginning this scholarship I have looked at every seafood retailer or wholesaler possible in every country I have visited and not once have I seen product that is fresher or better than what we produce locally.

Considering Australia imports about seventy to eighty percent of it’s domestic seafood consumption wild capture fisheries no longer hold the market place they once did. Through high and ever increasing production costs our capture fisheries have become directed toward high socio-economic domestic markets and export markets for products like Rock Lobster and Abalone which are predominantly limited to China. The result is an industry that transitioned from providing seafood for average families to producing premium product for a wealthier domestic market and a high volume export market.

Higher demographic, wealthier consumers in our major cities are more disconnected from food production than ever before and are unaware of how hard industry continually works to improve practices. They are the most politically active, influential and the most likely to research what they are buying. This disconnect compounds when the product information they receive through a basic Google search generally doesn’t come from producers but rather environmental NGO’s and activist groups who often distort science and facts to pursue their own ideological and fundamental beliefs.

This is largely a problem of our own making. As seafood prices skyrocketed over the previous decade the mentality of treating our product as a commodity hasn’t altered. We generally send fish to market or processors and allow them to dictate price. The irony is that our product is superior to cheaper imports and that domestically and internationally consumers are prepared to pay a premium for it. New Zealand is aware of this and are capitalising on it internationally with both fresh and value added products. In every country I have visited Kiwi seafood has been present, Australian has not. The largest source of fresh fish in Australia is from New Zealand, their import volumes are in fact larger than any single Australian fishery.

The variability of fish market prices in Australia are indicative that our domestic market can absorb only so much premium product before supply and demand economics kick in and prices plummet. What is needed is a entire change in the paradigm of thinking amongst producers. The world over urban consumers are gravitating toward fresh, healthy, pre-packaged food options. It’s a rapidly growing market both domestically and internationally and when industry initiated allows consumers to connect with producers who are directly providing these fresh and/or value added products.

As yet no wild catch sectors with access to a variety of species, volume and near constant supply have attempted to go down this path directly from production level on any notable scale. Australia (and South Eastern Australia) does have this potential but it would require a huge shift from our current thinking. A regional brand would take time and money to develop; marketing, communications and skills would need to be brought in. Working with Australia’s large corporate retailers would be required. The eventual benefits to a rural region however could be exponential.

A point that is hugely missed in marketing wild capture seafood is that we provide the only naturally occurring organic protein source available on a commercial scale. This single point alone when marketed and presented in the correct manner would increase demand and change the industry from being price takers to price makers.

Imagine a tired thirty one year old doctor walking into a Macro Supermarket in Prahan to purchase dinner after a long shift. Near the seafood display an iPad displays video footage of a fishing boat working in rough conditions. She picks up a portion size package of ling fillets seasoned with fresh herbs and garlic butter, a photo of Victoria’s pristine waters and beautiful coastline sits in the top corner with the words “natural, organic and responsibly sourced”. On the bottom a simple traceability system tells her the name of the boat it came off and gives a website address. Concerned about seafood harvesting processes she whips out a smartphone and punches in the web address. An image comes up giving details of Australia’s southern fisheries, an independent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) assessment showing that pink ling is not overfished and a map clearly showing the extent of Marine Protected Areas and links to all the projects currently underway to exclude interactions with seals, sea birds etc. Down the left hand side she see’s the name of the vessel that is on the package of ling in her other hand and clicks on it. A photo of the Lady Miriam comes up with Trevor and Joy standing in front of it, below it reads, “Trevor (Bluey) is the skipper and part owner of the Lady Miriam which is a family run business. He’s married to Joy and they have three children. Trevor spends around ten months a year at sea and has been an industry leader in trialing different sea bird mitigation technologies.” Smiling to herself she puts her phone away, glances at the iPad and purchases the ling. The whole process having taken less than a minute and in that minute a link to production has been made.

We have strong fisheries and smart fisherman but we live in a globalised world with globalised seafood markets and Darwin’s evolution has shown it isn’t the strongest or most intelligent that survive but the most adaptable to change. Our customers have changed, the technology they receive their consumer product information from has changed, to survive and gain strength into the future we must too.

Imagine that consumer a week later. She’s on a quick break and flicking through her facebook account. GetUp has launched another campaign to introduce more MPA’s or ban another form of fishing. Just as she is about to click “like” and sign the petition the image of Bluey and Joy standing in front of the Lady Miriam pops into her mind. She remembers the the information that stocks are not being overfished, see’s the map of protected areas, pictures the video of the boat working in rough seas, considers that a person is spending ten months a year at sea to support his family, that it’s a family run business and thinks, “jeez, haven’t they got it tough enough already.” If we can achieve that we don’t simply own the story behind our product, we own the story behind our industry.