EVEN before the Rev Barry Hickey casts his blessing over the fleet on Sunday, this year’s season looks to be one of good fortune.
A looming free trade deal with China promises to open up new markets for the rock lobster industry, which is also enjoying bumper catches and great prices.
John Minutillo owns a small lobster processing plant in Fremantle and says the ChAFTA agreement is big news.
“Once the free trade agreement is in place, they are reducing the tariff and we would be able to go into Shanghai and Beijing,” Mr Minutillo told the Herald.
About 90 per cent of WA’s rock lobster catch goes to China, but the Asian superpower imposes a 28 per cent tariff which hits exporters’ profits. It’s due to drop by 4 per cent in January, and while Mr Minutillo hopes it will eventually go altogether, China is only promising to go down to 14 per cent for now.
Mr Minutillo says there’s also talk of a 5 per cent increase in lobster quotas for the 2017/18 season because stocks have recovered so well.
That’s a major turnaround for the industry after stocks crashed seven years ago.
“The problem started because the boats had open slather, and with the technology and boats getting faster, they caught more but the lobsters started to disappear,” Mr Minutillo says. It led to many producers closing their doors and crew numbers being cut by half.
“Back 15 years ago there were 13, 14 processing plants and now there’s four big ones and a few small ones like mine.”
Quotas cut the overall catch to 6 million kilos a year. Mr Minutillo says it stabilised stocks and prices, and those who survived reaped unexpected rewards.
“When it was open slather everyone worked seven days a week during the season, so they were never home and that was hard on everyone. The season is now open for 12 months and so they can weekends to be with the family, and take time off for school holidays.”
Mr Minutillo, who’s president of the Fishing Fleet Festival committee, has been in the industry for 30 years. Although its many years since he fished himself, he has fond memories of the camp at Lancelin where families spent the season together.
“Once you’ve been out on the ocean, it gets in your blood,” he says.