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Shutdown leads to pivot for lobster exporter

By CCIWA Editor 

Two years ago, Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative lost 50 per cent of its market virtually overnight as a result of a still-ongoing international trade dispute. CCIWA’s International Trade and Investment Centre has been helping them to refocus on other existing and newly emerging markets. 

The Co-operative, which represents most western rock lobster fishers in WA, previously exported the majority of its catch to China, but in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and questions about the origins of the virus, unofficial sanctions closed down that market.

“Well, obviously, we were hit by the pandemic, like everyone, but then China shut in November 2020,” Co-op CEO Matt Rutter says.

“So we quickly had to reposition ourselves and sort of look to diversify our markets. Austrade's been helping us a lot with that in-country, as well as with Darren Levy and the team there at CCIWA across all key markets.

“Darren’s been our main point of contact, for the Austrade and trade stuff, and the team’s been working with him on a number of projects.”

Finding new and emerging markets

Kelly Wang, Sales Manager – International at the Co-operative, says the organisation has spent the past two years focusing on defining both alternative markets and new, emerging markets.

In October, she’ll be joining other Australian companies at SIAL Paris, a biennial gathering of food industry producers, importers, buyers and retailers. France has been a longstanding Co-Op customer, and the exhibition is a chance to re-engage with existing markets — predominantly bulk importers, rather than at the retail level — and meet their customers face to face.

“No other market can make up for the China market, just because we've been trading with China for so long,” Wang says; “and it will take time to re-establish existing markets, say, for example, France. And so we will hope that by re-engaging with everyone, we can lift the base up, step by step.”

The Co-op is also looking to build new relationships with importers in other European countries, including Greece, Italy and Spain — although Wang points out that these efforts are focused on making gradual inroads and raising awareness of the quality of Western Australian crays.

“Some of our old contacts aren’t accessible anymore, so we just have to do our groundwork again,” Wang says.

India is another potential export market. Although it has a massive coastline, and thus its own well-developed and comparatively inexpensive seafood industry, there’s no real equivalent to WA crays for upper-end hotels — and that’s where the Co-op sees an opening.

After a trade mission to India in July, along with Deputy Premier Roger Cook and CCIWA’s International Trade and Investment Centre Head, Mike Carter, the Co-op was invited to provide top-quality lobster for the Australia India Business Exchange trade delegation’s gala dinner in late September — a meal prepared by MasterChef Australia’s 2021 third-place-getter Kishwa Chowdhury.

“[India] will be a niche market for us,” Wang says. “Although it has a large population, we are just aiming for the five-, six- and seven-star hotels."

CCIWA helps with the details

With the focus on building new markets and further developing existing customers, there are a lot of details to be covered, which is where CCIWA’s been particularly helpful in supporting the Co-op.

Wang says she’s worked very closely with Levy, ITIC's TradeStart Adviser, whose knowledge and experience with Austrade has enabled him to validate leads from that organisation, while also facilitating and being involved with online conference meetings with customers.

“When Australia and India signed the free trade agreement in April, we knew nothing about the details and the arrangements. And then Darren and Mike Carter gave us all the detailed information about the deal and the market, so that was all very helpful,” she says.

“I just want to say great things about the CCIWA team, especially Mike and Darren — they have been a great help to us, helping us work out how to pivot to other markets, and we really appreciate their assistance.”

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