Do seafood imports threaten Australian producers ?

When I choose imported seafood over local am I hurting the local producers ?

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In most cases, the answer is a clear NO!

In recent years the Australian capture (wild) seafood industry has been hard-hit by rising costs such as fuel prices and resource management fees. The industry has been forced to expend vast resources defending its access to remaining fish stocks and adjusting to lower (sustainable) levels of production. At the same time, currency fluctuations have significantly reduced export income. These events are unrelated to imports. For instance, parts of Australia’s wealthiest fishery, rock lobster, are struggling to survive – yet this fishery has almost no import competition.

The Australian producers’ focus on exports (especially prior to the 2002 currency turn-around) has resulted in minimal investment in domestic marketing and promotion. Australia still has no effective national marketing or promotion organisation. Much of our domestic production is still sold at auction in the major cities (resulting in daily price fluctuations) and many important local species remain a mystery to most consumers – especially the younger generation. There is very little processing of Australian seafood to add value or convenience and, in many instances, the distribution channels and handling methods have remained relatively unchanged for decades. There are issues of inconsistent price and quality, and in many cases the catches available are little more than ‘cottage industry’ volumes and ought to be easily absorbed by an efficient marketing system. These situations are unrelated to import competition and need to be addressed independently by the local fishing industry.

The biggest elements of Australia’s fledgling aquaculture industry are also unaffected by imports. Southern bluefin tuna ranching is exclusively export focused, and Tasmania’s salmon industry has little import competition. However, much of the remaining industry is under 20 years old, and is still in the development phase. In most cases, production levels are still well below those required for maximum efficiency or to sustain markets. Together with development costs, their costs of production are well above optimum, and often above their wild catch competitors – both in Australia and overseas.

In some cases, Australian aquaculture is at a natural disadvantage due to the species available. For instance, most Australian prawn farmers grow Black Tiger Prawns – a species native to Australia. However, in much of the world, the faster growing vannamai species is preferred for aquaculture. This species is capable of three harvests a year (as opposed to one for Black Tigers in Australia) and thus has vastly reduced production costs. It is also a sweeter-tasting prawn and has a large consumer following world-wide. Vannamei is so popular in the US that prawns are now the main seafood product consumed there – surpassing even canned tuna or salmon. Australian producers are not permitted to grow vannamei here. In this case, imports of vannamei do threaten the viability of the higher cost local product.

However, to restrict imports in this situation would be to deprive the majority of Australian consumers of the opportunity to purchase a popular food product at globally competitive prices, whilst giving protection to a small industry sector that is locked into producing a naturally more expensive product.

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