When rock lobster fisherman Simon Nash winches his boat into the water before dawn he knows he might not make any money from his long day of work.
- Victorian rock lobster fishers want help to transition away from the Chinese export market
- Locals are selling lobster for one third of the price they were getting in China
- They point out other states have waived, deferred or refunded licence fees for their producers
It’s not because of the vagaries of fishing — the lobsters around his home at Port Campbell, near Victoria’s famous Twelve Apostles, are just as likely or not to wander into one of his 84 pots as ever.
The uncertainty comes from a dispute with Australia’s largest trading partner that he has no control over.
When the Chinese government left a planeload of lobster to rot on a Shanghai tarmac late last year, it signalled not just the ratcheting up in tensions with Australia, but also the tearing up of Mr Nash’s business model.
“It’s had a huge, huge impact,” he said.
“We’re lucky to have someone that’s willing to take our fish at the moment,” he said.
“A lot of guys are struggling to find someone to sell their fish to but we’ve been lucky, this whole [Australian] community has basically supported us since the start of December.
“At the moment it’s stop-start. When my buyer says he’ll take them, I work. When he says he’s full and we need to have a spell, we stop.”
Before the trade tensions, around 95 per cent of Australia’s southern rock lobster catch was being flown live to China.
But fishermen like Mr Nash are not just experiencing a sudden plunge in demand for their lobsters, but also a crash in the price they can get for their produce.
The Chinese market was prepared to pay around $100 per kilo for quality Australian southern rock lobster.
Now, Mr Nash considers himself lucky if he can get $30 per kilo on the domestic market.
The industry saw a small increase in demand over Christmas as Australians opened their wallets to support producers and treat themselves, and again around the Lunar New Year.
But that spending paled in comparison to the Chinese export market they had been enjoying for years.
“Once we get past [Lunar New Year] in a couple of weeks’ time, it’s scary to think about where we’ll be,” Mr Nash said.
Trade war with China hurting industry
The 37-year-old had worked as a deckhand on other people’s boats for a decade, before deciding six years ago to take on debt to buy into the capital-intensive industry himself.
Now he feels like an “innocent bystander” in the escalating trade tensions which have seen China slap tariffs on Australian products like barley, wine and beef.
“But there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s up to the two governments to sort it out and I’m sure one day they will, but it certainly hurts at the moment that’s for sure.”
Mr Nash remains committed to the industry and has been cutting costs where he can, but when he looks at his books, he sees one big expense that he’d like to slash — licence fees.
According to Victorian Rock Lobster Association president Markus Nolle, the southern rock lobster industry is “on its knees”.
“Licence fees can be 20 to 40 per cent of the cost of production, so it’s a very high cost,” he said.
“Other states have waived licence fees, I just don’t understand why the Victorian state government doesn’t do the same.”
The relief offered to fishers from other states varies.
South Australia deferred licence fees for six months, Western Australia deferred licence and boat registration fees for 12 months, Tasmania refunded $3.5 million in licence fees to its producers, while Queensland didn’t charge its tropical rock lobster producer fishers any licence fees in 2020.
No decision on Victorian licence fees
Victorian Fisheries Minister Melissa Horne was not available for an interview.
In a written statement, a spokesperson said no decision had been made on licence fees, and the Government was providing assistance to help the industry transition to new markets.
Mr Nolle argued the state’s licence fees were appropriate when the Chinese export market was roaring, but now they needed to be reviewed.
“We can’t survive that without the sort of prices the Chinese market was prepared to pay. We just can’t. Otherwise our fishing costs will be more than the price we get for the product,” he said.
“We’re about to go through a period of significant change, and we’re going to need more support to get through. If we don’t, there won’t be any industry on the other side.”
Mr Nash said any help with licence fees would be hugely beneficial.
Mr Nolle said more established players in the industry would most likely survive, but some newer entrants with high levels of debt were already walking away.
“You can’t just sell your assets and walk away,” he said.
“Right now, who wants to buy a rock lobster fishing boat or a licence? And in terms of what people had been paying for those assets there’s no way known they could recoup those costs now.”
Simon Nash says he will continue going out to check his lobster pots, sell what he can for the best price he can get, and try not to worry too much about geopolitical tensions.
“We’re committed to it. We’re not going to run away from it, we’re just going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment,” he said.