Local Identities

Farmer of the Sea and a Estuaries

Josh McMahon and Lynda Davidson

The waterways of the Clarence are rich with a diverse range of seafood, but there’s so much more to harvesting this bounty than just throwing in a net.

The Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-op, with 147 members, is the largest co-op in New South Wales, turning over more than $21million of product and directly employing 82 people.

It’s also the only exporting co-op in the state, its much sought-after seafood being snapped up by foreign nations such as China and Vietnam.

The Clarence is the largest producer of octopus on the east coast of Australia, and the so-called ‘Yamba’ prawns are renowned far and wide for their eating quality.

But these aren’t the only commercial species feeding the Clarence Valley, Australia and beyond. Ocean school whiting, blue spotted flathead, and ‘Balmain’ bugs and the sweet Clarence River school prawns are also mainstays of the Clarence fishing industry, along with many others.

The co-op’s general manager, Danielle Adams, and business development manager Gary Anderson sat down recently with Clarence Scene to share some insight into the local region’s fishing industry, its challenges and how it meets them.

First and foremost, the fishing industry is at the mercy of the weather gods.

“We are all governed by the weather. If the weather was nice and calm you could work 365 nights if you liked, but that doesn’t always work out,” Mr Anderson said.

“Rule of thumb around here is about 180 nights, some only do 150, a couple of the real hard workers would do 200-220, but they have to be big boats and have a fair bit of ticker.”

Commercial fishing is also an expensive business, and the potential of profit must be weighed up against anticipated costs.

“As an average you don’t want to go out to sea for less than 50-60kgs. It’s a small business. You have workers compensation, boat insurance – most of our boats can cost between $12,000 and $14,000 to insure. Fuel, net repairs, slippings, staff. The trawl wire is so expensive and we have to replace that about twice a year,” Mr Anderson said.

“Nets last one night sometimes.… There are a lot of things out there that you can’t see because of the depth. These days we know where all the reefs are, but we run into trouble with [the bones of dead] whales, containers that have fallen of ships, or ships throwing debris over, and vessels sinking.

“Leather Jackets can chew the nets to pieces. They can do a lot of damage, but thankfully up in our area they only come through one month of the year.”

Fishermen also face the challenge of seasonality of the estuary, particularly for prawns.

“Most of the fishermen need to be multi endorsed so they can work all year round and target different species all year,” Mr Anderson said.

“School prawn season starts in October and goes through to about May, so they need to look at what they are going to do for the rest of the year. If there is a low catch, they have to look at another way of making an income; so then they go into eels, mullet, mud crab, gar fishing and bream.”

Paradoxically, these challenges – bad weather, steep overheads and seasonal restrictions – are beneficial to the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry.

“Because of Mother Nature, that’s how it regenerates – because we can’t get out to sea 365 nights of a year, that is how the sea remains sustainable. It’s a natural cycle. The other side of it is the financial side of it. The fishermen won’t go out to sea for small amounts either, so we are leaving them alone,” Mr Anderson said.

“Over the next two months is our quietest time of the season. That’s when fishermen take their holidays, do all the maintenance required on their trawlers or rebuilds, so the ocean gets a rest.”

Sustainability isn’t left solely to chance, however. The fishing industry is well aware that if it ‘rapes and pillages’ – a common misconception –, then it will be left with nothing to harvest in coming years. And getting into fishing takes a substantial investment, so fishos don’t want all their cash going down the plughole due to dwindling fish stocks.

Much research has gone into understanding how the aquatic ecology works, and how species reproduce.

“Over the years sustainability has become a big problem for the orange roughy (deep sea perch) fishery, which take 20 years to mature. The same in Norway, because their species took so long to get to sexual maturity,” Mr Anderson said.

Trawlers off to sea. A good night’s pay. Processing the catch. Images: contributed

“Our biggest asset is that the prawns, cuttlefish and octopus have all got a very short life cycle, so they become sexually mature very quickly. So it really opens your thinking up, because a school prawn only takes twelve months. It comes back into the Clarence as a grain of sand, it grows in the mid waters, then goes to the weed beds and grows up to a prawn of size, then it starts migrating back to seas and it goes out to sea, spawns and dies.”

The health of the river itself is also vital.

“As fishermen, our biggest assets for king prawns are the health of the river [and] regeneration of the sea grass beds and the banks and mangroves. There is a lot of research now going into that side of it,” Mr Anderson said.

“It has been documented that a metre square of sea grasses, or ribbon weed as most people call it, can house up to one million small prawns and small fish, and that’s why keeping the river healthy is so important.”

Deregulation in 1999 was also a significant challenge for fishing co-operatives, of which many didn’t survive. The change in government regulation meant fishermen were no longer required to supply to co-ops and could look for other buyers.

“A lot of the coops closed, but the Clarence, because of the size of the river and the ocean, the fishermen were dependent on having a weigh-in depot and marketing … also, because we are as big as we are we have a big support network,” Mr Anderson said.

The co-op has undertaken much work to ensure economic resilience and minimise vulnerability to markets. It has secured major contracts with retailers, including with Woolworths, delivering twice a week to the supermarket giant, from Brisbane to the Central Coast and Victoria.

It has also worked to reduce reliance upon the traditional mainstay of the industry: Sydney, the co-op’s general manager, Danielle Adams, said.

“Sydney is one of our biggest customer bases, but we like to focus our efforts first and foremost on our shops and our local clients, have fresh local seafood available to the local community and then sell the products. Sydney is important to the industry and to us, but we have worked really hard to build markets [various] around, so we are not so reliant on them,” she said.

The co-op faces the constant struggle of ensuring consistent supply of fresh product for customers – what’s available isn’t known until the start of business each morning. In addition, fresh produce can’t be left sitting around – it has to move quickly to ensure customers are getting the best possible product. Likewise, an abundance of product creates challenges.

“It’s not easy – when we know what we have, then it’s, ‘well let’s look at where best to sell it? Where are we going to send it? Keeping customers supplied and satisfied? A lot of it depends on our value adding[freezing], as well. So when you have your lean times, you actually have frozen [stock]. This day and age, with the technology of the freezers; frozen comes out as good as the fresh stuff,” Ms Adams said.

“The whole goal from a cooperative perspective is to take the fish and turn it into multiple income streams, which then flow through to the fishermen’s business.

“Just on the processing side of it, we are unique in a couple of areas as well: we freeze, we also have a fish filleting machine for our ocean whiting, and we do our own crumbing of our own product, so we have a crumbing machine. We are going to be doing a big crumbing run shortly for the holiday period for our shops. It will be squid rings, trawl whiting, king prawn cutlets and mullet.”

Ms Adams sees parallels between fishers and farmers: “Fishermen are really no different to other farmers/primary producers. Farmers have their land and the fishermen have the sea/estuaries. I consider them to be the farmers of the sea and estuaries.”