Economics 101 transforms pipi fishery

A simple mathematical tool used in agriculture and manufacturing is improving the way the South Australian Pipi Fishery is managed, and optimising its value

Bringing in their catch: Chris Wilton (left) and Brett Goodwin.
Photos: Jacqui Way

By Lynda Delacey

Fifteen years ago, pipis (also called clams or cockles) had fallen out of fashion as a food product in Australia and were mostly sold for bait. But when the human consumption market began to expand again, more fishers began to work in the South Australian Pipi Fishery, which is part of the Lakes and Coorong Fishery.

This caused major concerns about the stock levels. Strict quotas were introduced to protect and rebuild the resource, but getting all stakeholders to agree on a process to set the total allowable catch (TAC) levels was causing considerable angst within the community.  

In 2012, the Australian Fisheries Management Forum (AFMF), a group comprising heads of state and territory government agencies responsible for fisheries, was tasked with developing the National Guidelines to Develop Fishery Harvest Strategies. The aim was to meet a need for a coordinated, nationally consistent approach to creating harvest strategies across all fisheries.

The project was led by Sean Sloan, director of fisheries and aquaculture policy from the Department of Primary Industries and Regions, South Australia, and supported by the FRDC.

The pipi fishery served as an early test case for the guidelines. The group sat down with scientists, fishers and government and industry representatives from the fishery to develop an annual harvest strategy that everyone could agree on.

“The pipi fishery posed some interesting challenges as it was a small fishery catering to both the recreational fishing bait market and the human consumption market,” Sean Sloan says.

“The science was showing that stocks had improved so the catch could be increased, but fishers predicted that prices would go down if more catch was put onto the market, which meant they’d be working harder for the same money. We needed to develop a decision-making process to set the TAC annually that would take all the heat out of the debate.”

This is where Roger Edwards entered the debate. Roger Edwards has been the independent chair of the Goolwa Pipi Harvester’s Association since 2008. He originally trained as an agricultural economist, working with the Department of Agriculture before moving into the fishing industry. For 20 years he developed and ran various fishing associations and represented the industry to government.

Donax deltoides – better known as pipis – harvested fresh 365 days of the year.

Roger Edwards says that it was clear the fishers were asking for economic data to be taken into account when setting the annual catch levels. Usually, setting TAC levels is based on biological data. When economics is factored in, it often takes complicated and very costly modelling to produce a maximum economic yield (MEY) estimate.

The pipi fishery needed a process that was much less expensive, that would take less than 12 months to turn around and that all the fishers could understand.

“I think I just brought a fresh set of eyes to the table,” Roger Edwards says. “I remember looking at the graph of the pipi catch for the past 12 years and realising it was just a classic supply-and-demand graph – straight out of Economics 101. The higher the catch went, the lower the price. And the lower the catch, the higher the price went. It showed that the pipi market in Australia was responsive to supply.”

Having worked in the Department of Agriculture many years before, Roger Edwards knew that a tool called the gross margin calculator is widely used to set supply levels. “I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t work in the pipi situation,” he says.  

Roger Edwards developed a simple preliminary fishery gross margin model, which he then presented to the harvest strategy group. The group approached one of Australia’s top fisheries economists, Julian Morison from EconSearch, and asked him to critique the model.

“Julian reported back that it did work in our situation but there are some considerations to keep in mind – such as the fact that you can’t predict price. He was then commissioned to take the model and make it very robust from an economic point of view,” Roger Edwards says.

From there, the pipi fishery could develop an annual harvest strategy that takes into account both stock levels and market drivers. Thus far the strategy has proven to be highly accurate and has resulted in more conservative annual catch levels than might otherwise have been applied.

“I think there are two key elements to the strategy that are fundamental,” Sean Sloan says. “The first is that the fishers participate in the independent surveys that are conducted on the beach three times a year by our scientists to estimate the relative biomass activities on the beach – the size and numbers of pipis. This then provides a reference point for the scientists to propose catch levels for the year."

“The second element is that we can look at what the economic outcome for the fishers would be if we changed the TAC for the year. If the science shows that the catch could be increased, but the economics show that the fishers would make less money, everyone can agree not to increase the catch that year.”

Roger Edwards believes part of the success of the survey is that fishers take such an active role in the decision-making process and can see the logic in the outcome.

He says the success of the model hinges on the fact that the pipi market in Australia is almost entirely a domestic market. “It wouldn’t work for an international market such as rocklobsters because there are too many factors that you just can’t measure and predict.”

It also works because the fishery could draw on good economic data that was already available through EconSearch. “If we didn’t have good data already available, it wouldn’t have worked,” Roger Edwards says.

For Sean Sloan, it has been a positive test case for the national harvest guidelines. “The next step is to develop more case studies to test the practical application of the guidelines,” he says.


Fishers to food marketers

On 30 September 2014, fishers and business people from the Lakes and Coorong Fishery came together to launch a new national company, the Goolwa PipiCo and processing plant at Port Elliot. The new state-of-the-art processing facility was established in part with the help of South Australian Government and FRDC funding.

Roger Edwards
Photo: Jacqui Way

The independent chair of the company, Roger Edwards, says the business sprang from the recognition that pipi populations had recovered and extra tonnage was available, but there was a need to find ways to increase demand in the market.

Although pipis are considered a seafood delicacy overseas, SA pipis could not develop the human food market in Australia until a convenient product was made available to restaurants and wholesalers.

“We did a lot of market research on product form and consumer preferences and found there was definitely latent demand out there, but the product needed to be more convenient and shelf life was an issue,” Roger Edwards says. “Then we found that modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) could extend the shelf life up to 10 days.

“We also found through our market research that consumers would accept a frozen MAP product, which meant we could provide a year-round supply.”

MAP keeps the catch vacuum-sealed in water. Based on learnings from the mussel industry, the group believes the MAP product will soon account for large volumes of the catch.

The Goolwa Pipi Harvesters Association, whose members hold 56 per cent of the pipi quota in SA, decided to set up a company to buy a factory and process their harvest. The facility is capable of processing up to three tonnes of catch per day. The pipis go into tanks to be de-sanded, sorted, blanched, packaged and distributed nationally and internationally.

“The Goolwa PipiCo is one of the first in Australia to put pipis into a package for consumers,” Roger Edwards says. “It’s a really unique example of fishers working to shift from independent hunter/gatherers to food marketers.”

In the 1990s, Goolwa’s Pipi Fishery was worth about $750,000 a year. In 2012-13, it generated $3.2 million gross value of production for the local economy. Roger Edwards says if they can build the demand and price, the fishery could support an increase of up to 50 per cent in harvesting. This would increase the value of the fishery 50 to 100 per cent.


FRDC Research Code: 2010-061

More information

Sean Sloan, 08 8226 8103, sean.sloan@sa.gov.au

Goolwa PipiCo