Prawn op­er­a­tor eyes greener pas­tures

The Weekend Australian - - BUSINESS REVIEW - SUE NEALES Sue Neales flew to Carnar­von to re­port on the Shark Bay prawn fish­ery cour­tesy of Mareter­ram.

A turn­around in the for­tunes of WA prawn fish­ing com­pany Mareter­ram has the listed $38 mil­lion min­now look­ing to ex­pand into new fields in both agri­cul­ture and aqua­cul­ture.

Mareter­ram — the name lit­er­ally means of the sea and the land — is a com­pany born out of the for­mer Nor­west seafood com­pany, which owns the largest prawn fish­ing fleet in the lu­cra­tive wild-catch Shark Bay fish­ery south of Carnar­von.

Since list­ing 18 months ago, the com­pany has turned a first-year loss of $5.1m into a $4.6m net profit for 2016-17, up­dated its 10-trawler fleet, added an ex­tra “back-up” boat to en­sure more fish­ing hours in case of break­downs, em­barked on a $10m ma­jor fleet moderni­sa­tion pro­gram and been 56 per cent ac­quired by South Africa’s Sea Har­vest Lim­ited.

It has also turned a busi­ness that used to just sell Shark Bay’s high-value Ma­rine Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil-cer­ti­fied king and tiger prawns whole­sale to dis­trib­u­tors al­most re­gard­less of price, into a ver­ti­cally in­te­grated seafood com­pany that now has its own dis­tri­bu­tion and ex­port arm and sup­plies prawns di­rect to the cater­ing in­dus­try, su­per­mar­kets and to over­seas mar­kets in Ja­pan, China, Hong Kong and Europe.

This sea­son, which runs from April to late Oc­to­ber, Mareter­ram’s Shark Bay fleet ex­pects to catch about 1500 tonnes of prawns and 55 tonnes of scal­lops.

But the slightly lower an­nual prawn catch — a con­se­quence of cooler wa­ter tem­per­a­tures in Shark Bay — has been bol­stered by stronger do­mes­tic prices of $15-$22 a kilo­gram be­ing paid for Shark Bay’s wild MSC prawns as a re­sult of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s six-month ban on raw prawn im­ports af­ter white spot virus dis­ease from Asia was found in Gold Coast prawn farms.

Mareter­ram chief ex­ec­u­tive David Lock says the key to the com­pany mak­ing big­ger prof­its from its dom­i­nant po­si­tion as the big­gest fleet in Shark Bay is to keep its 10 trawlers out fish­ing for as many days dur­ing the sea­son as al­lowed un­der its li­cences, to fo­cus on eco­nomic yield rather than to­tal catch, and to cap­i­talise on the fish­ery’s MSC sus­tain­abil­ity cre­den­tials to ex­port in mar­kets oth­ers can’t ac­cess.

“We want to fish as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble and drive max­i­mum eco­nomic re­turns. We want to catch more big­ger prawns even if the over­all catch is smaller, be- cause that’s bet­ter for both us and the fish­ery in the long run,” Mr Lock said. In the longer term, the plan is to move from a 20 per cent ex­port fo­cus to a po­si­tion where one third of all Mareter­ram’s Shark Bay prawns — soon to be­come a branded prod­uct — are sold over­seas.

Mr Lock, a for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the fam­ily-owned Craig Mostyn Group, pre­dicts 10 per cent will be sold to top-end Chi­nese mar­kets — a des­ti­na­tion still be­ing de­vel­oped by the busi­ness — and the rest into Hong Kong, Ja­pan, Spain and Por­tu­gal.

The next step is to ac­quire more blue-chip agribusi­ness as­sets. “The as­sets we are look­ing at will be in other states and in other fields of pro­tein pro­duc­tion; they will be sig­nif­i­cant as­sets — they could be farms — but they will be of the scale of $25-$50m ac­qui­si­tions.” Mr Lock said the com­pany had de­cided against en­ter­ing the dairy, grain, viti­cul­ture and hor­ti­cul­tural ar­eas, while “there are al­ready too many bil­lion­aires play­ing around with beef cat­tle.”

In­stead his fo­cus is on ac­quir­ing nut or oilseed farms, in­ten­sive live­stock busi­nesses such as pig and poul­try en­ter­prises, the pre­pared meal sec­tor, or farm­ing ven­tures with a point of dif­fer­ence such as free range duck, goat or pig pro­duc­tion.

Other seafood ven­tures are also be­ing tar­geted, in­clud­ing abalone farms or wild catch lob­ster, tuna and prawn fish­ing com­pa­nies, while in­no­va­tive plant based pro­tein pro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing non-meat al­ter­na­tives are also be­ing in­ves­ti­gated.

“We are not try­ing to be at the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­ogy; our fo­cus is to look at global food trends and in­vest in ar­eas where there is both sig­nif­i­cant vol­ume and grow­ing de­mand as the world’s pop­u­la­tion ex­plodes and the ap­petite for high-value pro­tein grows,” Mr Lock said. “Aqua­cul­ture and seafood is cer­tainly high on that agenda.”

COLIN MURTY

Mareter­ram CEO David Locke says the com­pany is look­ing to ex­pand into new fields in agri­cul­ture and aqua­cul­ture

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