Trade war halts rock lobster exports, putting fisheries at risk

Fisheries at risk: Northern Zone rock lobster fisherman like Aaron Whittle face an uncertain future, with exports to China currently on hold. Photo: File.
Fisheries at risk: Northern Zone rock lobster fisherman like Aaron Whittle face an uncertain future, with exports to China currently on hold. Photo: File.

An escalating trade stoush between Australia and China has left South Australian rock lobster fishers at risk, with Northern Zone fishers considered the most impacted in the country.

Tonnes of live lobsters were left stranded at Chinese customs over the weekend, raising major concerns among exporters, with extended delays likely to result in lobsters spoiling.

A majority of exports have since been halted after Agriculture Minister David Littleproud revealed China had begun inspecting upwards of 50 per cent of imported rock lobsters, citing concerns over trace elements of metals.

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Littleproud said there were already arrangements within Australia to do tests to make sure exported lobsters were of the highest class in the world.

"The other issue that we have serious concerns about is that Australia has been singled out on this - there has been no other nation that is exporting rock lobster into China that has been asked to do this, so we've asked for clarification because Australia ultimately is a fair country," Mr Littleproud said.

"We live by the rules of WTO, and we expect those countries that we trade with to do the same. So we're expecting clarification from Chinese officials...and my officials and DFAT officials in Beijing are working through that."

This comes as a blow to South Australian rock lobster fishers, who only began the 2020/21 Northern Zone rock lobster season on Sunday, after suffering major impacts due to COVID-19.

Executive Officer SA Northern Zone Rock Lobster Fishermen's Association Kyri Toumazos said the implications were "very big".

"In the Northern Zone, it's probably the hardest impacted fishery in Australia, given our season opened on November 1 and the market virtually closed on October 31," he said.

"We have made a decision as an industry to slow down, if not stop our supply.. we want an arrangement before we send product to China [again].

"Right now we are being extremely cautious not to send product to an unknown destination as such."

Mr Toumazos said Australian and Chinese industry representatives were currently working closely to re-establish a trading platform.

"We do feel that there is a feasible outcome here, but it is going to take a bit of time to establish that," he said.

"But, regardless if it takes a week or two or three, any time during this period of fishing impacts your fishing ability and profitability and unfortunately we are at the stage now that every day we miss out on fishing, is impacting the fishers enormous.

"It's unfortunate but we are working extremely hard as a consolidated group to try and start resolving the processes with China."

Northern Zone rock lobster fisherman Aaron Whittle who last week spoke to The Times about the launch of the season, said it was too early to tell what the current situation in China would mean locally.

"We really don't know at the moment... there is a lot of speculation," Mr Whittle said.

Minister for Finance, Tourism and Trade Simon Birmingham said that before lobster exports to China were halted, some cargo had been clearing customs, while other shipments had faced delays.

"Certainly there have been sufficient delays in the industry given the high value and short shelf life of these sorts of products, has decided to suspend for a period of time some of these exports while we try to get a better understanding of exactly what these new import screening processes that China has put in place are, and to make sure that they can be cleared in a timely way," Mr Birmingham told the ABC.

Shadow Minister for Regional Development and Primary Industries Clare Scriven said the situation was devastating

"This is an industry which has suffered greatly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's had to deal with a massive decline in people dining out and a significant disruption in overseas exports," she said.

"It's a very difficult situation, and we need Minister Basham and the government to do all they can to support our local producers.

"I would hope that Minister Basham is in regular contact with the Federal minister over this issue and doing all he can to advocate for this important industry in SA."

A state government spokesperson said the government was supporting the rock lobster industry as they work through the increased import inspection processes recently introduced by China.

"We understand that the industry, the Federal Government, and Chinese counterparts are all working urgently to get clarity on how they best comply on these new requirements," the spokesperson said.

"Rock lobster is South Australia's second largest seafood export, reaching around $64m in the year to June 2020. Whilst the vast majority of live rock lobster exports are headed to China, the South Australian Government's extensive network of overseas representative offices stand ready should exporters require support to identify opportunities in other markets.

"Ensuring food safety and quality for consumers in our export markets is one of the key reasons why South Australian premium food is highly sought after around the world.

"We have a robust biosecurity and fisheries management system that provides assurances to markets on sustainable and healthy seafood products and we hope a pathway forward will soon be clear so our rock lobster season can confidently resume."

Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development David Basham was contacted for comment.

This story Trade war halts rock lobster exports, putting fisheries at risk first appeared on Port Lincoln Times.