Keeper of the faith

Suzie McEnallay shows there is still plenty of heart in the Wallis Lake fishing community on the NSW north coast

As operations manager at the Wallis Lake Fishermen’s Co-operative, Suzie McEnallay ensures that fishers, and the community, can rely on the co-op to provide the best, freshest fish for their customers.
Photo: Shane Chalker

By Catherine Norwood
It was a proud moment when the Wallis Lake Fishermen’s Co-operative received not one but two state awards at the Sydney Fish Market (SFM) Seafood Excellence Awards last year.

For the co-op’s operations manager Suzie McEnallay the “highly commended” in the Best Supplier and Best Business categories was an important recognition for her “family” of fishers at the co-op. It was also a clear sign of how far they have come since 2008, when the co-op was on the verge of folding.

Officially, Suzie McEnallay did not join the co-op until a year or so after the “crisis”, but in truth it was more of a homecoming than a new workplace for her.

Hailing from a fourth-generation fishing family at Tuncurry, New South Wales, where the co-op is based, her family has been involved in the co-op for most of its 70-year history. As a child she was a regular visitor to the wharf and the co-op’s shed perched on the bank of Wallis Lake where the Great Lakes meet the ocean.

Suzie McEnallay says her father, Noel Gogerly, never allowed his children to work at the co-op while they were younger, when he was chair of the co-op. After school she left Tuncurry for Newcastle, NSW, and studied business before becoming the manager of a pizza store. Then, with husband Troy McEnallay, she bought into a store franchise.

But with two young children, they moved back to Tuncurry in 2006. A few years later one of the co-op directors approached her about bringing her business and food service skills to the co-op’s retail outlet. She progressed from retail assistant in 2009 to retail/wholesale manager, and in 2012 took on the operations management position.

“When I joined the co-op it was just getting back on it’s feet; the previous 18 months had been pretty touch and go,” she says. “They were about to lose their co-op and all the facilities they rely on to go fishing and sell their catch. The board of directors really took back control of operations and there were a lot of changes and solid commitment from the fishers themselves to get the co-op back on its feet.”

Reward for quality

The Wallis Lake Fishermen’s Co-operative is one of the few that operates with a weekly pool price for its fishers, a system that has remained relatively unchanged for many years. The pool system provides a collective reward for quality, rather than an individual reward, and encourages all members of the pool to work with that in mind.

The success of that joint approach has been reflected in last year’s recognition from SFM of the co-op as a supplier of excellence. “It’s been a pretty big improvement for us, to get to that level of recognition, that our product is one of the best,” Suzie McEnallay says.

“I think, like a family, we’ve worked together to survive the difficulties and it has made us stronger. There’s a good vibe now, and the fishers know the co-op is really theirs, and it is there for them.”

From barely surviving to thriving, the co-op has turned over more than $7 million per year for the past couple of years. It is about to undertake a major refurbishment of its slipway and has made a big investment in a new ice plant for members. Further expansion of the facility is also on the agenda.

Suzie McEnallay says rebuilding the co-op has included addressing the “loss of faith” the co-op suffered between the fishers and the co-op’s management, between the co-op members themselves and between the co-op and the local community.

Under previous management differential pricing deals had contributed to some distrust between members and undermined operations, she says. A real turning point in rebuilding of co-op and re-establishment of trust was the introduction of regular social barbecues five years ago. “It gave members a chance to meet and just talk about things, unrelated to fishing, which really improved relationships.”

Fishing is one of the town’s founding industries (Tuncurry is an Indigenous word meaning “plenty of fish”). However, when the retail shop was suffering its greatest losses, locally caught fresh seafood was generally bypassing the shop. Local customers lost faith in co-op’s store as a source of good-quality, local fish and they stopped coming.

“Now we make sure that the retail shop gets the first pick of the day’s catch,” she says. It has become a point of pride that the best local fish caught daily are sold daily. The support of the local community was rebuilt when the local catch returned to the counter, and consumer confidence in the product on offer has seen the retail business continue to grow. It now turns over $1 million per year: not bad for a town of 20,000 people, she says.

Fishing family

Given her family background, Suzie McEnallay has an intimate understanding of the difficulties that fishers face, the dangers of the work and the uncertainty the industry confronts in the midst of government reforms. She knows how important it is that things run smoothly, and she works with fishers to sort out smaller problems before they escalate.

Outside of office hours there are often phone calls from fishers with a simple issue such as an unset alarm, or something more important such as an ice machine breakdown. Or it could be a fisher needing some bait on a Sunday afternoon – a small matter, she says, but the difference between being able to go to work or not.

“There are boundaries, but the fishers know if they need something, or want to talk, then I’m there to help.”

In 2015 Suzie McEnallay took part in the National Seafood Industry Leadership Program (NSILP), sponsored by SFM and the FRDC. Without really knowing what to expect, she says it expanded her view of how much more there was to the sector than the commercial fishing industry.

As part of the NSILP she worked on a group education project, which developed a fisheries collect-a-card concept that was presented to Woolworths Supermarkets.

“I just know we have to focus on education. This is a generation of children that doesn’t understand that the fishing industry has been around for a long time, and that there is so much protection in place to make sure we can keep fishing,” she says.

That lack of understanding is something she experienced firsthand a few years ago when one of her daughters, then aged seven, made a visit to the co-op. “She saw my dad (her pop) unloading fish from the boat, and she was nearly crying. She thought he had caught all of the fish in the sea, that there were no fish left. Of all the children, I thought my daughter would have understood more.”

Expanding horizons

The importance of education is one of the reasons the co-op provides school tours and spends time teaching students about the life cycle of local marine species. “It’s really important because they go home and talk to their parents and friends – they remember.”

Following her involvement in the NSILP, Suzie McEnallay was chosen to take part in an eight-day study trip to the US in February 2016, to attend a local seafood summit in Norfolk. The focus of the tour was to identify business models of similar small commercial fisheries in the US, and to learn about tapping into new markets.

The Wallis Lake Fishermen’s Co-operative is already adept at tapping into tourist demand in NSW’s Great Lakes region. “Tuncurry is a holiday destination and a lot of visitors say the co-op is their first stop,” Suzie McEnallay says. “Mullet, flathead and Luderick fillets are our best sellers at the store but they’re often unfamiliar to people visiting from the city who are used to ‘restaurant’ species such as Atlantic Salmon or Barramundi.

“We’re often able to introduce people to something new. It’s great when you can get them to try something else; I love being part of that,” she says. “And I love the fact that we have a seafood industry that’s still thriving and that we’re seen as a positive part of our community.”

More information

Suzie McEnallay, wholesale@wallislakefishco-op.com.au