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Australian lobster exporters look to ‘reboot’ in alternative markets

Australian lobster fisher Andrew Ferguson says he became complacent amid surging Chinese demand for his rock lobsters in recent years, and now he is looking to re-engage with old markets. Photo: Facebook. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

CANBERRA, Apr 22, 2021, SCMP. South Australian rock lobster fisher and exporter Andrew Ferguson has more time for marketing these days, South China Morning Post reported.

Earlier this month, he launched a Chinese social media page on WeChat for his lobster business, Ferguson Australia, to reconnect with his long-time Chinese clients with whom he had no dealings for a number of months.

Relations between China and Australia have become fraught over the past year after Canberra pushed for an international probe into the origin of the coronavirus without diplomatic consultations beforehand, and Beijing eventually responded with a number of trade blocks on wine, barley, cotton, copper, coal, sugar and lobsters.

South Australian rock lobster fisher and exporter Andrew Ferguson has more time for marketing these days.

Earlier this month, he launched a Chinese social media page on WeChat for his lobster business, Ferguson Australia, to reconnect with his long-time Chinese clients with whom he had no dealings for a number of months.

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Up until the coronavirus outbreak at the start of last year, Ferguson was exporting about 450 tonnes of live southern rock lobsters to China a year – a trade he had finessed for three decades.

But the shock of the pandemic and an unofficial ban that China imposed on Australian lobsters in early November has cut his China-bound exports to zero.

On the whole, Australia’s annual export of roughly 11,000 tonnes of live rock lobsters came to a halt.

“We are all certainly surprised here in Australia that China would ban our lobster. Over the years we made many friends through the Chinese supply chain,” Ferguson said.

“I guess we had become complacent when consumed by China’s demand. Now we have the chance to reboot and cover a lot of ground that we had ignored.”

The trade disruption, following the political conflict between the two countries that began when Australia pushed for an international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus a year ago, was a wake-up call for the Australian export sector and government.

Ferguson said it serves as a good lesson about not being dependent on a single lucrative market.

“Re-engaging old markets again will take time,” he said, pointing to the “amazing Chinese consumption of our product” that did not leave enough supply to feed other markets.

During an Australian parliamentary inquiry into trade diversification last year, various exporters such as the nut industry submitted evidence that the Australian federal and state governments’ “focus on China had been, at times, to the detriment of other markets”.

At the time, Australia’s National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) said the federal government must set out “clear long-term priorities for accessing new markets”.

“The NFF does not view the effort to increase Australia’s access to foreign markets as a zero-sum game; improving the level of access to existing markets can – and should – be pursued at the same time as establishing entirely new export markets,” it said in its submission.

With China accounting for around 91 per cent of Australian rock lobster exports in 2019 and 2020, a new forecast by the Australian agriculture department said the resumption of rock lobster exports to China was the “key uncertainty for the forward projections”, and for the next five years, the department does not expect lobster exports to return to peak levels seen from 2013-19.

The report, titled Australian fisheries and aquaculture outlook 2021, also said there were opportunities to replace the lost trade to China, but “these markets are smaller than the Chinese market and focus on lower-priced product forms”.

For his part, Ferguson is looking for these “other markets”. This could include selling frozen packaged lobsters to supermarkets in Australia, the US and Europe, which was one of Australia’s biggest markets before all export efforts shifted to China following the free-trade agreement struck in 2015.

He is also stretching out his lobster-catching season over 12 months instead of five months.

Earlier this year, the South Australian government threw its support behind the beleaguered southern rock lobster industry by extending fishing seasons and allowing the carry-over of any uncaught-lobster quota.

“This helps us as we negotiate new markets, without the pressure of all the volume coming through over a short time frame,” Ferguson said. “China may come back somewhere in the future, but who knows where things will be market-wise then.”

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