Sustainably harvesting the “diamonds of the sea”

The Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative (GFC), headquartered in Geraldton WA, is one of the largest fishing operators in Australia, with annual sales of around $366.6 million in 2016. The company employs over 200 people. It is focused on the export of Western Rock Lobster and produces frozen, raw, cooked and live rock lobsters, primarily for exports to China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

The co-operative was established in 1950 by a group of local fishermen with the purpose of marketing rock lobsters internationally. It has a board of 8 directors, including 6 elected members and 2 appointed independents, and distributes dividends to members based on patronage.

Around 65% of all fish and seafood caught in Australian waters is exported. China has become a major market for rock lobster and this has significantly assisted GFC to secure a strong position in the live lobster export trade. Over the past five years GFC has seen its annual turnover increase by an average of 28%.

GFC is investing $20 million into a new facility in Welshpool in Perth, opened an office in China, and recently built live lobster distribution centres in Guangzhou. It will open two more in Shanghai and Beijing.

The co-operative plays a critical role in maintaining the sustainability of the Western Rock lobster fishery. Commercial rock lobster fishing in WA has been undertaken since the 1940s but improvements in fishing technologies that were introduced in the 1990s and early 2000s enabled fishermen to catch lobster with greater ease and efficiency. This began a decline in the stocks of baby lobsters, raising concerns over the future sustainability of the industry amongst many fishermen.

Rather than seeking higher quantities of rock lobster, it was the view of many in the industry that ‘value’ of catch was more important than ‘volume’. Perhaps surprisingly, the catch taken by commercial rock lobster fishermen in WA is usually less than the quota set by the state fisheries authority. For example, in 2015 the WA Department of Fisheries offered a quota in excess of 8,000 tonnes, but the fishermen voluntarily restricted this to 6,000 tonnes. Their philosophy was that rock lobsters are highly valuable and in demand. In essence the rock lobsters are the “diamonds of the sea” and over supply is only going to negatively impact price as well as fishing efficiency and sustainability:

“So the role we’ve played in that is certainly as their advocate, but also in driving a cultural change away from high risk/high-volume, towards low risk/high value. And the export market certainly responds to scarcity, not to abundance… it has certainly built our confidence so we know we have got a firm foundation, which is underpinning these investments we are making both here and in China. So it is a great success story and the key to it is, it was totally driven by fishermen, not the other way around.”

Wayne Hosking, CEO GFC

Although not all commercial rock lobster fishermen agreed with this “value over volume” strategy, it was a decision taken at the board level as being in the best interests of the majority of members. This required the board and the management to engage with members to help educate them towards the longer term view.